Whether you travel by moto, car, or tuk tuk, you can’t miss the delectable cooking aromas that greet you in every corner of Cambodia. But Cambodian food is not well known elsewhere in the world, and neither is Khmer, the local language. So both novice tourists and experienced travelers, seeing the daunting array of street food stalls and restaurants of all kinds and sizes, may wonder how to best sample the Kingdom of Wonder’s wonderful cuisine. Enter Siem Reap Food Tours.
If you are looking for help navigating the wealth of eating options Siem Reap, Siem Reap Food Tours offers vast knowledge of the town and the surrounding countryside, lots of tasty options, and a little bit of hand-holding as well if it’s needed.
Siem Reap Food Tours has been around for years, leading tourists, expats, and locals alike through the streets and alleys of Siem Reap and nearby villages in search of the best places to get the authentic local taste of Cambodian cuisine. Even though they’re based in the tourist-centric town of Siem Reap, next to the temples of Angkor Wat, they specialize in visiting places where most tourists never venture.
I opted for their morning tour, which starts out with an 8:30 pickup and a quick ride to a popular local-serving restaurant for one of my favorite dishes, bai sach chrouk (pork and rice). During my travels around Cambodia I’ve eaten this breakfast treat in many places, and while it has always been good, some cooks do it better than others. I soon discovered that Siem Reap Food Tours had taken me to a place that really knows how to make this dish.
They achieve the exact right ratio of palm sugar, garlic, coconut milk, soy, and fish sauce in the marinade for the pork. As it cooked over open coals I felt I could just sit by the grill and live off the smell, but the taste was even better. In addition to the delicious pork, the dish comes with a salad of fresh marinated carrot, cucumber, and daikon, which can be eaten piece by piece, but I like to pour the whole cup over the pork and rice. Another side is a small cup of soup made from chicken stock. I usually pour a few spoonfuls of the soup over the rice, pork, and vegetables just to get all of the tastes in every bite.
This was only our first course, however. Next we headed out to the chaotic Psar Leu, Siem Reap’s largest open-air market. Without a map or a guide you could easily get lost in the dizzying array of booths that sell just about anything you might need, and many things you can’t even identify. But our guide led us through the chaos, first showing us the alleyway around the U-shaped market where sellers display fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, meat, beans, and rice for sale. Pedestrians and motos alike have to squeeze through the crowded displays of wares in a constant game of chicken.
Inside the covered market the action is also nonstop, from sales of household goods to food preparation. We were led to a busy stall where a woman full of smiles served us tasty kuy teav (beef noodle soup) and lort cha (fried noodles) as the crowds hustled by behind our backs. We topped off with some nom ka chai, tasty little fried rice-flour-and-chive cakes that show the influence of Chinese cuisine.
Then we made our way through the market’s maze of crowded, narrow passageways back to the tuk tuk and headed out to the countryside, in search of even more food.
To sustain us along our way we stopped at a small cart on the side of the road where a local family was selling fried bananas. This simple snack, available throughout Cambodia, is a perfect quick pick-me-up, sweetness cloaked in a crunchy golden exterior.
Soon we were skirting the outer edges of Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and heading for a village famous for its handmade rice noodles. But before we got to the noodles we stopped at another roadside stall. This one offered barbecued chicken and fish, but we opted to try the kang kaeb baok. Many foreigners may be familiar with frog legs, but this dish is a whole frog, gutted and stuffed with pork and flavorings, then grilled over coals like a delicious sausage. While the chubby little frogs may not look like something you expect to find on your plate, they are delectable, tasting of barbecue smoke, galangal, and the rich sweetness of the pork.
The next stop was the highlight of the tour for me, the home of a local family that makes some of the village’s best rice noodles for local households, food stalls, and restaurants. There we got to watch the time-consuming process of making the noodles, an effort that involves the whole family.
The rice is boiled, ground, squeezed dry, boiled again, then pummeled by a foot-powered wooden pestle whose mesmerizing rhythmic thud is occasionally interrupted by the carefully timed turning of the dough by a family member’s skillful hands. After some kneading the dough is transformed into noodles: family members use their weight to apply pressure via a long wooden lever that squeezes the dough through a repurposed tin can with holes punched in the bottom, to form noodles that drop into a pot of simmering water waiting below.
The lengthy strands are cooled in cold water, then twisted and twirled by the experienced hands of yet more family members into beautiful rounded piles of noodles arranged in a banana-leaf covered basket, ready for sale and consumption.
After watching this family’s laborious efforts we were ready for our final meal on the tour, featuring freshly made noodles. At a nearby restaurant we tuck into two dishes, a traditional green nom banh chok somlor khmer and a red chicken curry, both heaping with the rice noodles we had just seen being made. While I usually have trouble deciding between colors when it comes to food choices — like the red or green chili in New Mexico — here, I have a favorite. The green.
Then it was time to head back to town and begin to digest not only our food, but all the experiences we’d had along the way. Because time spent with Siem Reap Food Tours not only teaches you about food — what it is called, how it is made, where to get it — but provides a four-hour window into the life and people of Cambodia.
Tours are available twice a day. The morning food tour starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at 12:30 p.m. The evening tour starts at 5 p.m. and ends by 8:45 p.m. The regular price for each tour is $75 for adults and $45 for kids, but they are offering heavily discounted tours for locals and expats during the pandemic but they must be booked at least several days in advance. Check their website for more details.
Siem Reap Food Tours offers vegan and vegetarian options, and can usually accommodate food allergies or other special diets if you give them a heads up when booking. If you take the morning tour I wouldn’t plan on a big meal for dinner. While I highly recommend taking the evening tour as well, I wouldn’t suggest doing them on the same day!
For more information, you can visit their website: siemreapfoodtours.com