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Jun 17, 2003 08:41 AM

The best street food? -- Phnom Penh's finest grilled chicken

  • m

I'm a little burned out on posts recounting expensive meals in upscale restaurants -- as well as disappointed with my own most recent experience (see below, "Bangkok - Spice Market disappointment") -- and thought I would put street food back on the top of the board....

Last night I picked up a grilled chicken from my favorite vendor here in Phnom Penh. There's a group of grilled chicken sellers on Sihanouk Blvd, on the sidewalk just a few meters down from Lucky Supermarket. I think the best chicken is sold at second stall from the left.

The bird was succulent, perfectly moist on the inside with crisp (but not overly burnt) skin. They partially cook the chickens on a vertical rotisserie, and then butterfly and finish cooking them on the grill. (Not so at other stalls, where the birds are often cooked from start to finish on the grills, and as a result can get dried out.) The bird is sold with all the trimmings: fresh herbs (not sure what the name is); fresh cucumbers; a slightly sweet side of pickled cabbage with some carrot; a lime and a packet of mixed salt and pepper (and maybe a bit of MSG?), in order to make the dipping sauce (fresh lime juice, salt and pepper) that Khmers use for roast or grilled meats.

Total cost for all the above: $1.50....which feeds two hungry people.

This, naturally, leads to a question: What is the best street food in the world, in terms of value for money?

- Michael

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  1. I only have experience with Shanghai street foods, which excel in tastiness and value especially at breakfast and lunch times (less so at dinner time, when they tend to yield to "small eats" specialty restaurants for value).

    My favorite is "shengjian bao", or "shengjian mantou" as the locals prefer to call them. They're Shanghai's equivalent to the potsticker, well-browned to charred on the bottom, soft on the chive-studded tops, and full of savory, deliciously greasy ground pork. It would be difficult to eat a buck's worth of these!


    1. Re: "last night I picked up..."

      Are you still in Phnom Penh? Vithei Pasteur (close to the Central market) transforms at night (after 7 or so) into a whole strip of stalls specializing in that very SE Asian mixture of fruit "jellies", fresh fruits (jackfruit etc), condensed milk served with shaved ice (similar to Filipino halo-halo or Indonesian es campur/es buah). The blocks of ice are shaved on beautiful antique metal machines (I lusted after one of these.) I lived at a youth hostel very close to this street and invariably ended my nights with one of these treats. Some people might find it ironic that Docteur Pasteur (the patron saint of Asepsia) provides the name for a street specializing in iced drinks served in open city air. But to be honest, I never once got sick and the stalls all seem to maintain a good level of hygiene.

      I have never found a single item sold on Sisowath to be worth trying. The little fried crickets don't seem to have much flavor to them. The tiny grilled rice birds are often overcooked and the meat turns tough and leathery. It IS one of the great strolling streets of the world though, comparable to the Ramblas in Barcelona for people-watching. Thieves, prostitutes, the prosperous new bourgeoisie, dirt-poor children, nuns with their shaved heads: all of Balzac seems to be out at Sisowath after dark.

      Phnom Penh is a heart-rending city to visit. Half the population seems to have lost a limb. On Sisowath, there are often singers on wheelchair who make their way slowly, ceremoniously from one end of the quai to the other. People would send their little children to greet them with a few coins and with clasped hands and a low bow of respect. There was a man who had lost both legs playing a plangent rabab-like instrument on a wheelchair. Both he and the man who was pushing his wheelchair sang some of the saddest, saddest songs in these high, quivering, theatrical voices. I did not have to understand the Khmer language to know that these were little masterpieces expressing pain and loss.

      Ponlok, just north of the Foreign Correspondents' Club was a nice place to eat on the quai about 3 years ago when I was in Cambodia. I was searching for something on the web not too long ago and found out that they actually have a website with photos of all their dishes (!) (Do google: Ponlok) I can't look for it now, but it is a good reference for exotic dishes (venison etc) available in Phnom Penh. I think that Ponlok is run by Chinese. The huge crew of kids from the provinces, all trying to be helpful without knowing a word of English, cracks me up.

      I was told that the gazebos on the quai (water side) run by the government serve not-bad food. I never ate at the FC Club but enjoyed the extraordinarily cosmopolitan atmosphere: specially on the roof deck.

      I hired a motorbike driver one afternoon to make a trip to see the Killing Fields. It had rained that afternoon and our motorbike was practically buried half the time in the thick yellow mud on the dirt road out of the city (we had to lift it out now and again). Because of the rain, some of the topsoil at (one of) the Killing Fields had eroded a bit. I had not expected and was truly horrified to find beneath my sandals bits of rotten clothing, slivers of skull, a baby's molar. Most of the bigger bones/pieces of skeleton had been excavated and consecrated in the new glass stupa, but apparently a lot of the remains of the thousands killed here remained underground.

      An ironic and painful twist! That night, I made my way (all dressed up) to see the supposedly-fabled Elephant Bar (apparently an old colonial hangout) at the Raffles Hotel. The staff was properly trained in international ways of being solicitous, although they didn't know and couldn't make me a gimlet. A big black American mama in a stunning sequined gown was playing jazz at the baby grand. And of course, it had to be a "black mama": the caricatural, Disneyesque, aspect of it all! All sort of foreigners (Hollywood starlets on a shoot, young 20-something computer whizzes on some job for a multinational company etc) were hanging about: in shorts, in baseball caps worn backwards. I opened the huge winelist and was quite stunned to find a bottle of 1970 Petrus for $2,000. This vintage has a personal significance because, as a young callow sommelier, this was the first truly great wine that I had to execute the service for, on my own. And here it is again: at the other end of the world, in a country where folks might not make even $5 a month, priced exactly as it was at my restaurant and in the same range as it would be at Jean-Georges or Daniel's or any other such restaurant. Needless to say, I was quite shaken to the core by this disjunction, after the harrowing experience at the Killing Fields in the afternoon. Somehow, I have never looked at wine with the same eyes ever again.


      8 Replies
      1. re: RST
        Caitlin McGrath

        Wow, what a wonderful read this post was. I opened it expecting to learn about some interesting street food I'll most likely never have the opportunity to try, and what I found was, in a few paragraphs, the best travel writing I've read in quite a while. Thank you.

        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          Hey Caitlin,

          Hey Michael,

          Boy, now I feel silly ;). Didn't know that you live and are reporting from PP. Thought that you're traveling through and were asking for advice while on the road.

          I have not been back to Phnom Penh and so cannot say if Ponlok has gone downhill or not. Such family-run places generally do not change much over the years and I assume that we are talking about the same level of quality. I don't think that it was ever a top place for trying exquisite Cambodian cooking. In fact, I think a couple of the tourist-trap places in Siem Reap might actually have better food than Ponlok. What it DOES have though, is a fairly extensive menu of exotica and rarely-seen dishes (see link below: ox blood served in a glass, grenouilles etc), some of which are actually done quite well (I don't have my notes and so cannot elaborate). But you are right about the general level of the cooking at this place.

          I found the food stalls at O Rusei (Russian Market) much better than those around the Central Market. Not for the faint-of-heart-or-stomach, of course. ;)

          Correction to above post:
          Children handing out coins: actually bills I think. Coins are virtually worthless. Also youth hostel should read "backpackers' hostel"

          Also: any news of Chef Sottha Khun (former Le Cirque New York chef)? Is he still consulting/teaching in Cambodia?



          1. re: RST
            Michael Lerner

            Feeling silly is unnecessary....yours was a reasonable assumption!

            Well, if we're talking exotica and rarely-seen dishes, then yes, Ponlok's not bad. For quality of food and pleasant surroundings, my favorite in Phnom Penh is still Khmer Surin, if you stick to the Khmer (and not Thai) side of the menu. (For those who are heading to Phnom Penh, I have previously posted on Khmer Surin, including some recommended for Cambodia below.)

            Re: chef Sottha Khun, I have no idea what he's doing or where. I read the New Yorker piece on his return to Cambodia a few months before I came here myself, and have re-read it a few times since, as I've gotten more understanding of this country (and its food). The article actually ends with a suggestion that he would not be staying in Cambodia...but I have no idea what he ended up doing, or where.

            That said, if anyone knows, I'm very curious. And if he's running a restaurant in Cambodia, I'd love to get the address.

            - Michael

            PS A slight correction to RST's post above: The "Russian market" is Psar (market) Toul Tom Pong, not Psar O Russei (which actually means "Bamboo Creek", or something like that). I haven't tried the food stalls at the O Russei market, but there are some fine places at the Russian market.

            1. re: Michael Lerner

              That was a great piece (Molly O'Neill, New Yorker, July 23, 2001) but then of course, it came out before 9/11. Most people's plans have been on hold since then.

              I was thinking of Toul Tom Pong. Sorry. Should have looked at my notes first instead of relying on memory. There's a woman at the back who makes lovely crepes stuffed with fresh greens. Again, not for the fastidious (the greens being uncooked). Also, some interesting, unusual (freshwater) fishes from the fish vendors. I think that there are a couple of (antiquarian) bookstores in PP (and perhaps also in Vientiane etc in case you travel to these cities). Ask if they might happen to have a rare copy of Alan Davidson's long-out-of-print book on the fishes of Laos. I doubt that they would but one never knows. (Alan Davidson was once British Ambassador to Laos.)

              if you are reading this: this is the same Davidson of the Oxford volume on Food that we talked about on the Chicago board.)


              1. re: RST

                I just googled "Davidson + fishes + Laos" and got the ff info:

                Davidson, Alan, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, Imprimerie Nationale Vientiane, 1975 (?)


                Davidson, Alan, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, Charles Tuttle, 1975, 2nd revised ed.

                A copy of the latter is available at Moe's in Berkeley for $95. Probably in the antiquarian section on the top floor.

                I am dying to find a copy.


            2. re: RST
              Stefano Bonafe`

              I would like to have some news of Sottha Khun my Chef in Le Cirque.I real;y would like to have his e mail to send some news.
              I really need to do that.

          2. re: RST
            Michael Lerner

            Yes, I'm still in Phnom Penh (I live here).

            Re: Ponlok (which is indeed Sino-Khmer), I'm actually not impressed by the quality of the food there. Maybe it's gone downhill since you were there?

            I haven't tried the bowls of ice/fruit/sweets/condensed milk, but I have had the smoothie-style drinks ("duk-gralok", with the pronunciation often slurred to "duk-a-lok") made at many of the same stalls.

            As for the outrageously priced wine: not long ago I wandered into the wine store located in the basement shopping arcade of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Phnom Penh. There were more expensive bottles (most costing in the hundreds, some in the thousands) in that small space than I've ever seen....welcome to the bi-polar economy.

            - michael

            1. re: RST

              I agree with Caitlin. A real pleasure to read a post written as well as much that has been published. Not only did you capture the feeling and ambience of several of the scenes you also drove me to my dictionary for "plangent." I am just curious but have you published in the past or do you write professionally? Thank you.

            2. Best street food in the world? How to choose? But I would nominate:

              1) in Bangkok, a couple of sticks of muuyang (grilled pork), dipped in smoky/sweet/hot/fishy namcim sauce, about 18 cents a stick

              2) also in Bangkok, a bag of saakoo (tiny rice flour "pancakes" folded over a fingertip-sized filling of pork, dried shrimp, peanuts, shrimp paste), to be wrapped in accompanying lettuce leaves and boosted with coriander sprigs and tiny whole green chilis, a little over 50 cents for the whole set-up

              3) a generously-sized freshly grilled fish fillet served on a warm roll, topped with shredded lettuce and tomato, at the Uskudar dock in Istanbul -- about $1

              4) a fat, curry-spiked fish-stuffed rotti at the coffee shop next to Kandy's fish market in Sri Lanka, 30 cents

              5) if you can still find them on the street in Shanghai in the morning, a crispy scallion pancake hot off the griddle

              6) and almost anywhere in SE Asia, a beautiful sampling of tropical fruit, your chosen specimen peeled, cut up, and presented in a totable plastic bag -- 25 cents in Thailand

              1 Reply
              1. re: foodfirst

                Plenty of congyou bing and all the usual suspects on the streets of Shanghai. On just about every street in every residential neighborhood that hasn't been bulldozed and even on some that have.

              2. Three cuisines (Malay, Chinese, Indian) for the lowest prices, all really good and fresh. Not counting the amazing tropical fruits too!

                1. My favorite street food is something i've only ever seen served streetside is the "Stinky Bean Curd" offer by peddelers who go from neighbrhood's on food with set up's on wheels. It's smelly, spicy and addictive, seems everyones eat's the stuff from toddlers to grand parent's. Another streetside item i've enjoyed was "Cannon Rice" you provide the rice the peddeler puts it into his mobile cannon and "BOOM" it's puffed up. The best hygenic examples of streetside cusine is that offered in Singapore and Maylasia at the food stalls set up in the evening or the licensed "Tai Pai Tung's" in Hong Kong that promptly deliver to the nearby flat's where many have no kitchens available, or chose to eat by the stall's. There are also peddlers in Hong Kong who push carts with as many as 16 seperate hot containers of seasonal snack foods, my favorite was the "Fish Balls" or "Pork Intestines" each peddler has his specialties that change regularly, but it's possable to enjoy almost any so called restaurant specialty at streetside places almost anywhere in Asia.