Under a scorching sun, my guide and I wander among the peppered trellises. As the color of the berries change, their aromatic profiles also change, I learn: green pepper, fermented in salt, goes well with goat cheese and caramelized duck; black pepper, the bulk of the harvest, presents notes of chocolate, mint and eucalyptus and accompanies game and cold meats; while red peppers are fruity, floral and delicious when paired with fish or ground over ripe strawberries.
While Kampot pepper is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, Phnom Penh’s street food scene is also making sense. Back in the capital, I hop in a tuk tuk and wade through its clogged, temple-flanked arteries to meet writer, guide and film scout Nick Ray at the central art deco market for a street food “safari”. . “Everyone has heard of street food in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City,” he says, “but Phnom Penh should be just as famous.”
We stroll along the alleys lined with dried fish: catfish, snakehead, squid. “The dried fish is salty but really tasty grilled and dipped in a mango sauce.” River crabs, he tells me, are fermented in salt for five days and then cooked with lemon, basil, sugar and chili.
We graze from stall to stall, tearing up grilled beef skewers with young papaya marinated in Phsar Tapang, and take a bench by the side of the street for a plate of lort cha, a dish of short rice noodles sautéed on a sizzling hot plate with cabbage beans, cabbage, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce, then topped with a fried egg.
“Lort cha is a popular inexpensive lunch,” Nick says as we walk home. “The carts that sell them all play different tunes, like ice cream vans.” It’s thirsty work, so we end our tour with a drink at Juniper Gin Bar, which serves drinks from Phnom Penh’s premier craft distillery, Seekers Spirits. I opt for the Mekong G&T with kaffir lime leaf. It is teeming with native plants such as lemongrass, pomelo, galangal, and lemon Khmer basil. It’s Cambodia in a glass.
How to do
Audley Trip offers a tailor-made 11-day trip to Cambodia from £ 2,280 per person including flights, transfers and accommodation, and can organize cooking classes led by a chef.
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveler Food.
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