Finding sustenance, and routine, in a new home.
My initial arrival in Siem Reap felt cinematic: exiting the airplane and right away hopping into a tuk tuk; careening down dusty, red-dirt roads lining the teeming riverbanks; gazing up at thatched roofs and golden temple gables surrounded by banana trees; feeling the breeze from the open-air carriage and the motorcycles speeding around beside it. I was in Cambodia to volunteer with a local NGO called the Ponheary Ly Foundation, and would soon start my assignment in nearby Khnar Village, working with elementary-age children to strengthen their English-language skills.
I was traveling alone—actually alone—for the first time, eager to challenge myself. I had but a vague plan and an even vaguer savings-account balance. I did have a place to stay, though. That helped. I soon got settled into my lodgings and, with an unsurprising hankering for a snack, ventured out into the twilit city.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s third-largest city, located in the northwest region of the country and about 90 miles from the Thai border. It’s known for its beautiful Angkor temple complex—a monumental achievement of architecture dating back to the early 12th century A.D., preserved beautifully as a UNESCO World Heritage Center. It’s also known for its incredible, abundant street food.
I was immediately greeted by the scent of protein roasting over coals (pork, I’d later learn), and went to go investigate its origin: Lined up along a narrow dirt road, surrounded by multiple others, was a food cart selling exclusively skewers of glossy, marinated meat. Being a vegetarian, this wouldn’t quite work, but I was nonetheless intrigued. In the nearby lineup of carts, I spotted chive-and rice-flour pancakes sizzling on a flat top; steaming bowls of vermicelli soup garnished with fresh herbs and fried shallots; crispy battered bananas, fresh out of their dip in bubbling oil; stubby, chewy rice noodles, flash-fried with assorted vegetables and eggs in an enormous cast-iron wok. I had, apparently, come to the right place.
Still hovering over the carts, carefully studying the ingredients that went into each of these dishes, I ultimately sprang for the fried noodles. I motioned to the cart vendor that I wanted a serving and watched him prepare the meal. He fried the vegetables first, dropping into the wok hearty stalks of Chinese broccoli and slivers of scallions, then tossing in the noodles, adding measured dashes of soy sauce in between each addition of a new ingredient. I saw him pick up a bottle containing a deep amber-colored liquid—fish sauce, I ascertained—and vigorously shook my head as he attempted to add it to the dish.
No fish sauce—fish sauce, no—no, thank you. No. I tried several permutations, none of them quite right.
The vendor seemed to understand, and refrained, replacing the bottle on the counter of his cart. Finally, he threw in a fistful of crunchy bean sprouts, piled it all in a to-go container, and fried an egg in the now-empty wok, giving the noodles a little egg hat. He artfully squirted on top of it what appeared to be three chili sauces (three!), before neatly sealing up the package and handing it over. He then held up his index finger on one hand and stretched out the other. My pre-travel research told me that the U.S. dollar is Cambodia’s currency of choice, the local riel only ever used for micro-transactions. I pulled out a single note and gave it to the vendor, amazed by this tiny mountain of wok-charred goodness I was getting in exchange.
Ambling down towards the river to find a spot to eat, I noticed several more of these cart groupings—there were dozens, on what appeared to be every single street corner—and wanted to compare them to the ones I had just visited. Was I getting the absolute best noodles available? (This was a legitimate concern of mine.)
But I was famished, unable to wait even to sit, and opened the packet to take a big, eggy, chili sauce–drenched bite. I was momentarily immobilized. There was at once crunch, chew, char, acid, sweetness, spice. I finished the packet, and immediately wanted—nay, needed—another. After all, it was only $1.
I'd later learn that these extraordinary noodles were called lort cha, an immensely popular dish with locals and tourists alike. It was second only to bai sach crouk, a grilled pork and rice dish traditionally eaten for breakfast, and the ever-present nom pang, or roast-pork sandwich topped with a crunchy papaya salad. I would get to know lort cha pretty well during my time in Siem Reap, unable to try these other nationally beloved dishes due to my dietary restrictions.
The next morning, full of noodles and energy to explore, I ventured to Psar Chas, Siem Reap’s old market. I was in search of a caffeine source and a bite for breakfast, and quickly found what I was looking for on both counts: a creamy, condensed milk–sweetened, rocket fuel–strong iced coffee; and an assortment of tropical fruit and starchy sweet things. The latter came in the form of nom korng (palm sugar caramel–glazed, sesame seed-topped rice flour doughnuts), nom heng (sesame seed–flecked saucers of fried dough), and nom krok (mini coconut-milk and rice–flour pancakes whose pan resembles the vessels for Danish aebleskivers or Dutch poffertjes). I ate one doughnut then and stocked up on a few other snacks to take to the school with me later. After an exciting and nerve-wracking first day with the students, I returned home both spent and ravenous, but knew exactly how to fix that. (I’m a quick study, when it counts.)
I pulled out a single note and gave it to the vendor, amazed by this tiny mountain of wok-charred goodness I was getting in exchange.
This is how I’d spend my days, beginning with iced coffee and a little bread, sometimes splurging on a vegetarian rendition of kuy teav, a rice noodle soup, from the fancy cafe next to the market. Then I’d take the long tuk-tuk journey to Khnar Village, assist the local teacher in classes, and return home to bike around the city and procure dinner. More often than not, I’d end up with a packet of lort cha. In a country whose most cherished dishes involve grilled pork in some form, I was glad to have found something I could eat, and more importantly, actually liked to eat, no less within my budget.
I was, in part, guided to the noodles by the practicalities of my situation—the lack of an available kitchen in the guest house, my vegetarianism, the limited network of friends I had in Siem Reap, the state of my finances. But I was guided, too, by the comfort of habit. And this routine would go on for weeks upon weeks, until the very day I’d leave Cambodia.
“You’re skin and bones.” My grandma grasped me by the shoulders and studied my face, as though literal bones were extruding.
“No, I’m fine! I’ve just been busy,” I protested, wriggling out of her grip. I'd just returned to her home in Singapore, where I'd been staying before going to Siem Reap. She looked worried.
"I'll make you some lunch now. What do you feel like eating?" she asked.
I didn't need to think about the answer.
What's the one dish you could eat every day for a month? Share it below in the comments!