I’ve been putting my office in order, unpacking boxes of files and notebooks from years past. I came across a tattered journal with a pink cardboard cover; it holds some of my initial impressions of Cambodia in early 1998, shortly after moving to the country. On Jan. 24, I wrote about our first meal at the Boeung Keng Kang Restaurant, before I knew much of anything about Khmer food; before I knew much of anything about Cambodia at all. It’s been five years since I last ate at that restaurant, but as far as I know, this little gem still serves a remarkable array of Khmer food. On Norodom, south of the monument.
Jan. 24, 1998
We dined last night at a Khmer restaurant just a few blocks up from our street. We sat beneath a wooden awning with a direct view to the kitchen, which offered an impressive display of sharp utensils, hot fires and chopped foods, and cooks scurrying about. The menu listed nearly 200 items written both in Khmer and English. Number 4 or 5 on the list of specialties was steamed cow penis, advertised as a Chinese medicine. We skipped that, as we did the “animal inner” soups. But we still managed to order ourselves a feast.
Before the food, however, a couple of beer girls approached our table, each wearing her employer’s sash, offering Angkor, Tiger, and brandy. According to a poster on the wall, “black glutinous wine” was another option. Jerry ordered a Tiger, I ordered an Angkor. The Tiger girl poured for him; I poured for myself.
Our first course arrived on a bed of lettuceâ€”a salad of sorts with raw green beans, smoked fish, fresh mint and basil, ground peanuts and a tangy, fishy sauce.
Next came a double order of chicken sour soup, served in a hot silver bowl, with hunks of tender meat, green peppers, onions, chili peppers and greens simmering in a ginger broth the color of cumin. This was meant to serve two, but it could have fed a family of six.
The waiter then brought a one-burner stove, topped with a Chinese clay pot full of aromatic soup. He followed with a plate of rice noodles and green onions; a plate of deer meat, shrimp and squid; another plate of cucumbers, onions, green tomatoes and cabbage. He instructed us to shovel the food into the bubbling pot. And there it simmered at our table. We poured it over rice, eating all we could (barely a third of the contents).
We finished eating, and our waiter laughed when we asked for a doggie bag. He disappeared around the corner and returned with plastic bags. In went the clay-pot brew, double-bagged and knotted. He eyed us, we nodded, and he scooped the meat and noodles into another. He looked our way again, we nodded, and the remaining sour soup went next. Cambodia uses plastic bags for everythingâ€”grated ginger at the market, a kilo of fish sauce, coconut juice sold on the street and served with a straw. Plasticâ€”ubiquitous, strewn around the city, fulfilling temporary purposes then left as litter amid mounds of pomelo peels, Alaska brand condensed milk cans, Angkor beer bottles, torn kramas, and everything else a part of daily life.
The waiter cleared our table, and he brought a carved pineapple for dessert. We began to panic. Would the $17 and 3,000 riel in our pockets cover the full costs of such delights? By then, Jerry had sipped his way through another beer. We wondered whether the roasted peanuts served upon our arrival cost extra.
Moment of truth. The waiter brought our bill for a meal that stuffed us both, plus enough leftovers to feed four more. $11.40.