Footpath Feasting: Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap
Cambodian street food was one of the highlights of the recent Water Festival in Cambodia’s Siem Reap. Food carts and food stalls lined the length of the riverside and filled the parks, while mobile vendors roamed the streets, stopping to set up shop wherever a hungry crowd gathered around.
On any given day, you’ll find Cambodian street food in, outside, and around the perimetre of local markets such as Phsar Chas or Old Market (also written as Phsar Chaa) in the heart of Siem Reap, Psar Leu (the large market on National Highway 6), and the small riverside markets and neighbourhood markets scattered around town.
You will also spot food stalls along a section of the riverside opposite Old Market and on the adjoining blocks; dotted along main roads such as National Highway 6, Airport Road, Sivutha Boulevard, Wat Bo Road, and River Road; and in the residential backstreets, where the customers are the locals who live and work in that neighbourhood. The stalls usually set up or move around the streets in the late afternoon and early evening as locals are heading home from work.
On and around Pub Street you’ll also find the ubiquitous fruit shake stands, pancake vendors and ‘roty’ sellers (although they’re not really ‘roti’, but are more like French pancakes or crepes) that are primarily aimed at tourists.
Here are some of the Cambodian street food highlights from the Water Festival that you should look out for when you visit Siem Reap. Click through the gallery above to see images of the street food dishes below.
Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap
Grilled beef and pork skewers
Grilled skewers of meat, both beef and pork, are some of the most popular Cambodian street food snacks and you’ll mostly see two types. Just look for the smoke rising from the wood fire burning from within a food cart or a clay brazier with smouldering coals to find these tasty street food treats.
The smoky, sticky red pork skewers are sweetish and have a very similar flavour profile to Cambodia’s quintessential breakfast dish, bai sach chrouk, which is pork marinated in palm sugar, soy, garlic, salt, and pepper, or sometimes a Chinese five spice-style marinade, then served atop rice with a crunchy, tangy-sweet serving of salad or chrouk l’hong (generally green papaya or cucumber with daikon and maybe a little carrot in vinegar and palm sugar). The skewers are prepared in the same way, however, they are often sold on their sticks in pairs or four skewers with the lightly pickled salad on the side that you can eat with the skewer.
The other type is the beef skewer, sach ko ang, which is generally marinated in kroeung (lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, garlic), and sometimes fish sauce, before being barbecued. They’re also served with a pickled salad and sometimes a warm buttered baguette. Both skewers usually sell for R1000 (25c) per skewer or four for R4000 ($1). There are several local restaurants (one is little more than a shack) on Wat Damnak street that serve these in the late afternoon and evening.
Baby duck eggs
Baby duck eggs or duck foetus eggs, or pong tae koun in Khmer, are another very popular late afternoon or early evening Cambodian street food snack. They are usually sold two ways as well.
You’ll most likely see women carrying two baskets on their shoulders or a single basket balanced on the front of their pushbike. One basket will hold the boiled eggs in white shells and another basket will have dishes, egg cups, tea spoons, and condiments — salt, pepper, limes (for the juice), maybe some finely sliced red chillies, and fresh green herbs (generally a mix of fish leaf, rice paddy herbs, maybe some lemon basil).
These women will often carry a small stack of tiny plastic chairs so you can sit down to savour your baby duck egg. To do as the locals do, put the salt and pepper in the tiny dish, squeeze in some lime juice, mix it up, and break up some of the herbs. Crack a hole large enough for your tea spoon to fit in the top of the egg and pour in some of the tangy salt, pepper and lime mix, folding it into the delicious duck juices. You can squeeze in some herbs or nibble them after. These eggs are less cooked than the darker eggs you’ll also see, pictured above, and the juices of the duck are wonderful with the salt, pepper and lime.
The darker eggs with the hole in the top, firm yolk that has oozed out, and perhaps a little beak poking through, like you see in the image above, have already had some of the seasoning of salt, pepper and lime poked inside before being cooked a little longer. These eggs are made for eating on the go. You can simply peel the egg and eat it whole, although foreigners generally find this off-putting as the form of the baby duck is visible. So perhaps look for a small spoon to dip in instead.
Steamed pork buns
Cambodian pork buns — called nom pao — are similar in style to the ubiquitous Chinese pork buns (siopao) found around Asia, but while tasty and serving perfectly fine as a filling snack, they are generally not nearly as delicious in my opinion. Although there are, of course, exceptions. Until you get to know the different stallholders, it can be hit and miss.
In general, the filling of the steamed pork buns in Siem Reap tends to be less rich and dense, and is often more savoury, with smaller and fewer pork pieces, or minced pork used instead, and is seasoned with a thin peppery gravy. Some fillings, on the other hand, are sweeter, as they are made with a red Chinese sausage. While other pork buns are plain and come with an egg inside. The bun itself also tends to have more of a bread like consistency and isn’t as light and fluffy as the Chinese buns.
While you’ll see vendors that only sell buns, it’s something of a Cambodian street food tradition for a vendor to sell pork buns, eggs and steamed corn. The pork buns here make a very cheap snack — they’re generally about R1000 (25c) for a large bun and R500 (12.5c) for a small bun. Eat them while they’re hot; they’re not nearly as nice cold.
Grilled sausages on skewers
The Cambodians love their sausages sweet, like the red Chinese sausages which are so beloved by locals here they call it Siem Reap sausage. Cambodians travel from all over the country to buy these in Siem Reap. These aren’t always to the taste of foreigners who aren’t from Asia. These small sausage balls on skewers are no exceptions. They’re best for sharing, as a whole skewer can be a bit sickly by the end if you’re like me and prefer spicy and savoury to sweet. I always wish I had a bun or baguette to pop them into.
Some sausages can be very fatty — another reason why a bun would be good! — so look for the darker coloured sausages, which have more meat. If they’re whiter or have large patches of white, then that’s pieces of fat. They’re tasty, though, and are good washed down with cold beer. They also serve as a good hangover cure. You can buy a skewer for about R1000 (25c). Sometimes vendors will sell a plate of four with a pickled salad on the side, as they do with the skewers for R4000 ($1).
Sugar cane juice
You’ll see the ubiquitous sugar cane juice sellers around town, making sugar cane juice to order. Look for the bees buzzing overheard and for the long lengths of sugar cane, and listen for the sound of the cane being crunched through the crusher. The juice is generally served in a plastic cup or plastic bag with a straw over ice.
Note that ice is, on the whole (but not always), safe in Cambodia, thanks to the French who installed plenty of ice factories. Do be cautious, however, and always use the busiest stalls. A sugar cane juice is a fabulous pick-me-up and thirst-quencher if you’ve been out in the sun all day.
Silk worms and crickets
Wok-fried silk worms (in the gallery pic, they are at the top of the image, in the plastic bag) and crickets (in the plastic container beneath the silk worms), are generally fried with palm sugar, salt and perhaps some fish sauce, then sprinkled with thin slices of fiery red chillies and perhaps sliced chives or spring onions. They are another Cambodian street food snack that are popular with locals. As are tarantulas. They’re not just here for tourists.
I was at Phsar Chas or Old Market in Siem Reap the other day when a woman arrived with a box full of fried tarantulas. Her friends, fellow stallholders, and their kids — including a cute little girl as young as three or four — quickly gathered around to share the treats, pulling off the legs to bite into, as we might pull apart a chicken wing, and savouring the body of the spider. Silk worms are actually quite delicious — at Marum restaurant they serve them as an appetizer.
Unless you’re trying the spiders at a restaurant, the tarantulas are best avoided. There have been reports of some sellers around Pub Street, where sales are aimed more at tourists rather than locals, not removing all the hairs from the tarantula legs and the hairs getting lodged in people’s throats, resulting in serious illness. Our advice: stick to the silk worms or crickets.
Corn on the cob
After rice, corn is one of the staples and corn on the cobs are the one of the most ubiquitous Cambodian street food snacks. You’ll see corn sold on nearly every street corner in the late afternoon and early evening, especially in Battambang, where much of the country’s best corn is grown. Corn is generally steamed, although occasionally grilled, but either way it tends to be served plain in Cambodia.
Unlike in other countries, such as Thailand and Mexico, where they’ll serve it with salt, pepper, chillies, mayonnaise, and lime. Some enterprising vendors will offer condiments here but most don’t, and to be honest, while I do love the way the Mexicans do their corn, the Cambodian corn is so sweet and delicious, it’s wonderful on its own.
Sour and Pickled Fruits
You’ll often see women with baskets of various peeled and sliced yellow and green tropical fruits, including green mango, green papaya, guava, sapodilla, rose apple, wax apple, and jujube and so on. The women will generally be sitting beside each other in a row, each specialising in a few different types of fruits, and Cambodian women will pull up on their motorbikes and choose what they want. Or you may find one vendor with a cart and a large selection of fruit.
Some of the fruits will be lightly pickled, while others will be fresh but unripe. Either way, they’ll be sprinkled with finely sliced red chillies and the women will sell them with a small bag of salt, sugar and chilli (or pepper) mix that you can dip the fruit into. Interestingly, pickled fruit is considered to be a snack only eaten by women or lady boys in Cambodia. Apparently it’s very popular with pregnant women in particular.
If you’re a fan of eating street food and keen to sample Cambodian street food, do see our post on How to Eat Safely in Cambodia. Also check out this post for more images from the Siem Reap Water Festival.
If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, consider my Savour Siem Reap, bespoke culinary themed experiences. I include a Cambodian street food tour, as well as many other mouthwatering activities in these handcrafted itineraries I curate for travellers.