Some people may advise against street food in Southeast Asia, but if you want a taste of the best local cuisine, suck it up, pack extra Pepto-Bismol, and embrace the flavors of the street.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, there’s no shortage of street eats, but the market is slightly oversaturated with similar offerings – a stark contrast to the overwhelming ethnic fusions that you find at American food trucks. Here, you have your choice of hundreds of vendors, but they’re embracing only three major food groups: smoothies, noodles and pancakes. Standing on the corner of Sok San and River Road in the pouring rain, I counted eleven identical smoothie stands with fresh fruit shakes for only one dollar. These shakes are the perfect pick-me-up with tasty combinations of fruit and vegetables including guava, apple, durian, melon, carrot, avocado, pumpkin, coconut, papaya, jackfruit, dragon fruit, mango, watermelon, lychee, rambutan and longan. Though the menu only lists single-fruit smoothies, with a simple smile, you can order a fusion shake at the same one-dollar price.
Still very early in my adventure, I’ve tried my fair share of fusion smoothies. Currently, my favorite flavor combo is mango-pineapple, which a smiling man prepared for me while simultaneously handing over slivers of fresh green mango to nibble on. He made a mean smoothie, definitely the best in town. The only advantage I could see other smoothie entrepreneurs holding over the person helping us, was that some stands offer liquor-infused smoothies. Despite not having an alcohol option, the shake was still outstanding!
Even with the free reign, I’ve noticed that very few vendors have been able to break through the food cart clutter with an innovative product, but I was able to find a cool one. Passion Pops takes the frozen fruit craze to a new level with fresh fruit ice pops and fried ice cream. The stand-man said pineapple-coconut was his favorite pop, so I listened and give this treat a shot. As the frozen pineapple melted away, the coconut held the pop together and added a new texture dimension. Again for only one dollar, this was a wonderful treat. In addition to selling amazing treats, Passion Pops takes advantage of the Cambodian open-air cart design by frying ice cream in front of camera-happy tourists, meaning there’s a crowd at Passion Pops every night. The fruit is excellent in Southeast Asia, and I’d recommend the fruit route especially for those sensitive stomachs.
After trying the frozen fruit, I was ready for something a little warmer, so I chose to test out some piping-hot plantains. I ordered four mini-bananas, which were stacked on a stick and roasted over an open flame. I noticed that the skewer must have been prepared hours before I arrived, but the 90-degree temperatures kept them ready to serve. Barbecuing the bananas solved the texture issue that deters so many individuals from eating bananas or plantains. These plantains are small and the outer 75% is rather tough and tasteless, with a hint of charcoal. The inner portion is gooey and sweet, enticing enough for me to finish the whole skewer. For only 2,000 riel (50 cents), I received three flavors, four plantains, and five different textures.
On another quest, this time for more substantial street food, I had a tough decision to make: fried insects and snakes, or fried noodles. While food poisoning seems to be inevitable, eating a snake not approved by the FDA is just asking for hospitalization. Despite my Cambodian friend’s warnings that yellow noodles are made from tummy-ache-inducing chemicals, I couldn’t resist trying it out and order them them vegetarian-style. The smiling woman opened a pack of Ramen noodles and fried them up with chopped spring onions, sugar, three mystery sauces and a sunny-side egg on top. The interesting combination was a tasty one and decision I’m glad I made. If you make friends with the chef, they’ll let you fry the egg and noodles yourself.
No day is complete without chocolate and luckily for me, I had my pick of fifty identical pancake stands. These pancakes are basically crepes, and come with banana, Nutella, condensed milk or a combination of all of the above. I ordered a banana and Nutella pancake, which melted in my mouth. I’d recommend limiting yourself to only 2/3 toppings, or the pancake is overly sweet and soggy – a mistake I’ve already made several times. Warning: these pancakes are highly addictive. They’ve become a nightly thing for myself and half the fun comes from watching the chefs smack a ball of dough into a perfect crepe from muscle-memory in less than 60 seconds. Then they smother it with Nutella, flick on some fresh banana and roll it up like a succulent burrito.
What Siem Reap’s food carts may lack in diversity, they certainly make up for it in consistency, taste and price departments. The abundance of street eats means that you never have to search for your next meal, whether it’s 2 P.M. or 2 A.M. Just remember to say auh-kun (thank you)!
Annie Edwards is a new Roaming Hunger contributor and will be sharing her street food experiences during her journey across Southeast Asia. You can check out her blog at okayfinetravel.com and on Instagram at okayfine___ (three underscores).