Stretch Your Gastronomic Boundaries in Siem Riep
PHOTO: The author samples all manner of exotic cuisine on a food tour of Siem Reap. (photo by John Roberts)
I felt a little faint when I realized what was the next item for us to try at the night market on 60 Meter Road in Siem Reap.
My wife, Colleen, swears my face turned pale as I muttered,“So, we’re going to do this, huh?”
All I remember is that our Urban Adventures tour guide Khemara Kim handed me a spoon with a portion of the “baby duck egg” ready to consume. My mind began to race.
I had read about Hot Vit Lon in a book by former New York Times “Frugal Traveler” Matt Gross and swore that was one item I would never be consuming no matter how adventurous I consider myself. Hot Vit Lon is considered quite the delicacy in Cambodia and Vietnam. But biting into a fertilized duck egg is about as intimidating as you can imagine for a Westerner.
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I picked the Siem Reap Street Food by Night tour knowing we would have a few creepy items on the menu. But as of one hour into our adventure, we found our group of four easing into it. Kim had not put anything too offbeat onto our plates.
We had started in Siem Reap with a fun tuk-tuk ride to a no name, family-run barbecue restaurant on Wat Bo Road near the university.
Kim showed us how to prepare a dipping sauce with peanuts, lemongrass and fermented fish sauce—to be used on our barbecue beef and veggies. We were enjoying some traditional Khmer flavors with a salad featuring long beans and banana flowers. We also sampled beef cheek and chewy beef skin (nothing goes to waste, Kim explained).
I was happy to have an Angkor brand beer to wash down some of my bites, but nothing had freaked me out yet. I even enjoyed the snakehead fish we got at our next stop, the “Harmony Market” in the city, and I typically don’t like seafood. This is also where Kim introduced us to all the sweet exotic fruits and traditional desserts of Cambodia.
We eagerly downed dragonfruit, jackfruit, rambutan and longan fruits before diving into simple but tasty pastries like a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaf and cookies baked over an open wood fire. (Durian, the legendary stinky fruit, was not available because it was out of season.)
When we headed out to the busy night market on 60 Meter Road, however, things got really interesting.
The four of us piled out of our tuk-tuks and stood out as the rare non-Cambodians in the crowded market. Motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks snaked through lanes of vendors who set up in every bit of space amid the hundreds of families who come out nightly to grab a patch of ground and spread out a blanket for a picnic in the warm airs under star-filled skies.
Kim took us from cart to cart, hunting down bizarre (for us) cuisine. He grabbed the baby duck egg at the first stop, and that’s when I had to make the decision on whether I would go for it.
He cracked it open, took a spoon to it to chop it up and mix it together. I took a deep breath and placed my portion into my mouth, noticed how creamy it was (with not too many crunchy bits), swallowed quickly and finished off my bottle of water to help it down. My brother-in-law Ryan said he actually liked it.
Well, that was over with and provided an interesting story to tell, but I will not be having any more Hot Vit Lon.
The fare came at us quickly over the next 30 minutes. Grilled insects like tarantulas, scorpions and crickets didn’t faze us after that egg. A small frog? No problem.
Silkworms (they looked like grubs to me)? No thanks. I finally drew the line. Plus, I was starting to get quite full from the flurry of items Kim ordered up for us to try.
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After a bit of recovery time, we move on to fresh honeycomb, coconut custard and more fruits. Kim reminded us that we were just having all the appetizers so far. We then rode over to a restaurant to have our main meal. The chicken with rice and fish sauce, plus noodle soups, were not quite as adventurous but quite delicious and also offered true tastes of Cambodia.
“I think when you visit countries, you should try the local food so you have the flavor of the culture,” Kim said. “You also have the memories.”
Trust me, I won’t ever forget that night of eating.
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