Footpath Feasting: How to Eat Safely in Cambodia
How to eat safely in Cambodia is a concern of many travellers heading here and is something we are asked about all the time by people planning a visit. Getting sick can ruin that once in a lifetime trip to Angkor Wat here in Siem Reap or the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh but it can ruin a whole lot more than that if you catch something really nasty.
There are so many different factors that can cause you to become ill after eating at a restaurant or street food stall, making it an issue that we often find hard to cover when writing about destinations.
For example, a few years ago on a guidebook assignment in northern Italy we were driving to our next destination when Lara told me the name of the hotel we were staying at that night. It sounded familiar and I recalled why… a couple of weeks before our stay the hotel in question had a serious outbreak of food poisoning amongst a group of guests, resulting in one fatality.
As it was the summer high season, we had booked all of our hotels in advance and it was too late to change to a property we’d prefer to be writing about. Needless to say, the mood at the hotel was somber. The chefs were using thermometers to check the doneness of scrambled eggs at breakfast. The waiters were very suspicious of my cameras. They probably suspected we were doing a story on their food poisoning incident.
It was a dilemma trying to determine how to cover the hotel in the book we were working on. It was one of the grandest hotels of the region, with a noble history, so was it fair on the hotel to mention the incident (“nice hotel, but avoid the food!”) or unfair on potential guests to not write about it?
A couple of recent incidents in Cambodia raised a similar issue for us. While it’s one thing to get sick yourself or read reports about groups of people falling ill after a meal at one of the best restaurants in the world, it’s another to see poor food handling practices up close.
We had just arrived at a new hotel in Phnom Penh and with deadlines looming that afternoon we decided to order some room service for lunch. Our own needs aside, we also try to make a habit of ordering room service at hotels we’re writing about to see what it’s like, as travellers often tell us they ate in their room because they were too tired to go out.
The fresh spring rolls that arrived that day were very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that the prawns were raw. The ‘chef’ hadn’t cooked them before preparing the rolls. I would eat raw prawns in a sushi joint in Japan or a fine dining restaurant in Italy, say, where they serve them uncooked in olive oil, and where they know how to handle them. But the last place I’d eat raw prawns is Cambodia.
For an unsuspecting and unlucky guest, eating the uncooked prawns could have meant a couple of days suffering bacterial diarrhoea, or worse, contracting hepatitis A or typhoid, both distinct risks in Cambodia. One reason why you should have those pre-trip vaccinations.
A couple of weeks later we did a popular cooking course at a restaurant in a Cambodian city where the ‘instructor’ really had a thing about food safety – and sprinkling Knorr’s chicken stock cubes into every single dish. While his obsessive use of the stock cubes was disconcerting, his admirable safety lessons were undone by the plastic container of ‘meat’ he proudly showed us.
I prefer metal containers for hygiene reasons. I also prefer to keep raw beef, pork and chicken in separate containers. Yes, he kept all three types of meat in the one container for use in both his restaurant and the cooking classes he ran with his wife each day.
If you were being generous you could say that, well, it’s all going to get cooked anyway and that any bacteria (yes, you chicken juice floating around with possible campylobacter and salmonella) will die when the meat is cooked to a safe temperature. But really, would you want to cook or eat in a restaurant with a kitchen that takes that unnecessary risk in the first place?
While I would never recommend a cooking course where the secret flavour ingredient is Knorr’s chicken stock, I would also never knowingly eat at a restaurant that takes such risks with food hygiene when it comes to meat storage. Nor do I want to be recommending it.
But as travel writers do we have an obligation to other travellers to not only not mention these places in the stories we’re writing but to also ‘out’ places that could potentially harm – or even kill – guests with poor food handling practices? And how do we know that places we recommend actually do have better food handling without going into the kitchen to do an inspection?
In the case of the hotel in Phnom Penh, Lara sent the spring rolls back and sent an email to the hotel owner and manager. It turned out the hotel was in between chefs and a very junior kitchen staffer had forgotten to cook the prawns.
The cooking course instructor, however, didn’t think that there was anything wrong with his food handling practices, even after I pointed out the potential problem. It’s a popular cooking class that is recommended in guidebooks and travel forums and included on food tours. There’s no way we will be recommending it.
As we’ve now been living in Cambodia for six months and have spent plenty of time in kitchens here, doing cooking classes and interviewing chefs and restaurant owners, we thought it was time for some tips.
TIPS FOR EATING SAFELY IN CAMBODIA
- Be more conservative in Cambodia – take a lot more care in Cambodia than you would in other countries when it comes to food that you’re willing to try on the streets – hepatitis A and typhoid are not souvenirs you want to take back home. For a number of reasons, diseases are more prevalent here, hygiene standards are generally lower, and street food stalls are not as scrupulously clean as they are in Vietnam or Thailand. Most travellers we meet have been sick at some stage of their Cambodian trip.
- The usual South-East Asia street food rules apply – make sure the stall is busy with locals. Look for a tub of dishes that appear to be getting washed in hot soapy water. Check to see if the chopsticks are in sealed paper/plastic or they and the cutlery are presented in a container of piping hot water. Make a note of how clean the kitchen or food preparation area looks if you can see it. All are essential in Cambodia.
- Take extra care with fresh, uncooked food – you want to buy some sliced fruit from a street cart on a hot day? Sure, it’s fantastic, especially when sprinkled with salt and chilli, but is the vendor wearing gloves when cutting it? Great, but if he’s still wearing them while handling money, good luck. I’ll peel my own fruit, thanks.
- Be careful at the hotel breakfast buffet – if you’re at a hotel/hostel with a buffet, don’t pick up food or pieces of fruit with a communal fork and then eat it with your hands. Buffets themselves are never a great idea but sharing cutlery can be just as dangerous.
- Wash your hands well – always wash your hands well before you eat, but especially if you’ve been in the countryside, shaking hands with people, and perhaps patting (hopefully rabies-free) dogs. Wash your hands throughly with soap for at least twenty seconds. Or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Remain cautious in restaurants – don’t assume that visiting a Western-owned restaurant means you’re safe. Unless the chef is operating at the level of a restaurant like Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, food hygiene standards might not be much better than a market food stall, and in some cases could be worse. Lara was out for two days after eating at an established French restaurant in Siem Reap – one that came recommended by local residents.
- Take care at cooking classes too – if you’re doing a cooking course, find out if the instructors are qualified as chefs or have worked in a good restaurant or hotel kitchen, where you can expect there are procedures in place for food safety. Hopefully one where the hotel wasn’t “in-between head chefs”.
- Take calculated risks – because I’m living in Siem Reap, in the name of research I’ll often take more risks than the average person would or should. I take might just finish off that slightly undercooked roadside beef satay, order beef carpaccio at our regular Italian place, or get a beer with ice in it. But I don’t have a full day’s tour of the temples in a tuk tuk booked for the next day. Nor a plane to catch. As the saying goes, only gamble what you’re willing to lose.