Two weeks ago, The Hub and I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia to attend a friend’s wedding (which The Hub also shot). On the way, we did a one-night stop-over in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and then coming home, we stayed for a night in Singapore. Many of the travel books I’ve read have said that eating in these countries is an experience not to be missed. I was already familiar with Singaporean cuisine, but I’d never been to Vietnam or Cambodia. So, adventurous eater that I am, I slid a pack of M&M’s in my hand-carry. I thought it would be my lucky charm; that caressing it in my pocket would ward off any cooked bugs in my meals.
I hardly needed the M&M’s, after all.
In Ho Chi Minh, The Hub and I set off from our hotel bright and early. We were going to Ben Thanh market, a ten-minute walk away. The market is right in the center of Ho Chi Minh and is probably the city’s answer to Manila’s Divisoria, with mounds of souvenirs, jewelry, and clothes. After haggling with persistent salesgirls for a couple of hours, The Hub and I decided it was time to eat.
We wanted to go to a place where the locals ate, too, so we ignored the guide books and asked one of the salesgirls where we could go. She pointed us to the center of Ben Thanh, where there were about 10 food stalls. Unlike in the shopping area, where the crowd was 98-percent tourist, the people clustered around the food stalls were 70-percent Vietnamese. That did it, lunch was here.
We sat at a short white-tiled counter facing a glass partition where, on the other side, we could watch our cooks prepare our meal. They were a couple of elderly women wearing floral aprons. One manned the stove and grill, and the other manned the prep area. On the table in front of them were bowls of fresh vegetables and spices. Over and over, with quick and smooth movements, the sous chef passed her hands over the bowls of ingredients and within seconds, a previously empty white bowl would be overflowing with noodles, vegetables, spring rolls, and anything else her customers asked for. While we sat waiting, an orchestra of aromas flew at us – that served as the appetizer.
The Hub and I had spring rolls, mounds of herbs, rice noodles, barbecue (guess who had that under her noodles and spring rolls), and more vegetables. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and judging by the way he just sniffed up his bowl, it was The Hub’s, too.
By late that afternoon, The Hub and I were in Siem Reap. Immediately, we were swept up into the itinerary of the bride and groom, who were perfect hosts. We had dinner at a restaurant named Pyongyang (seriously) and watched the sunrise at Angkor Wat (worthy of another post).
We were left to ourselves the day after the wedding. So to set the mood right, we headed to the Old Market – a charming block-and-a-half of stalls selling tourist trinkets, clothes, books, and antiques. There’s also plastic kitchenware (which you will swear look exactly like the ones in Manila) and shoes. In the middle of the market, right next to the closet-sized hairdressers’ stalls, is the wet market.
Exploring all these, The Hub and I discovered a charming side street that was lined with cozy restaurants. And in the midst of these was a small place that gave free popcorn as appetizer. Needless to say, The Hub and I ate here. They served really good Amok (a traditional Cambodian way of cooking coconut sauce into fish or chicken, recommended by my friend The Scholar) – the fish and chicken came wrapped in banana leaves and swam in vegetables and thick white sauce. The place was a perfect fusion of worlds – the walls were covered with posters advertising Cambodian liquor, a concert, and travel tours. Then on another wall, the TV was on HBO, and we had lunch to Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider’s antics.
Later on, after watching the sunset on the tip of another temple, Bakheng, which sits on a hilltop, The Hub and I made our way to Pub Street. This isn’t really the name of the street, which leads to the Old Market, but it might as well be with all the bars and restaurants on it. At night, Siem Reap lights up and the tourists weary from walking the temples all day get their second wind. Local restaurateurs line up a wide sidewalk with tables and a portable kitchen. For a dollar and fifty each, The Hub and I had heaping plates of fried rice, chicken, and more vegetables. This wasn’t where locals ate – we sat among fellow tourists – but it was closer to the real deal, I guess, than a restaurant where tourist buses brought their clients to.
Two days later, we were in Singapore to visit my brother’s family and, owing to the city state’s significantly higher standard of living, we celebrated by having lunch in Ikea. We craved Swedish food in Singapore. It was more due to multi-tasking than anything (and not having enough time to do the street food) – I had to satisfy my Ikea fix and The Hub needed to replenish his stash of lingonberries. The meatballs were the same as I remembered them, and the cold cod fish I had was a pleasantly crunchy surprise.
In one of our shelves at home now sits a book on Cambodian cooking. Hope springs eternal.