Last updated on September 15th, 2017
As you drive or walk the streets of Cambodia, you’ll be tempted to try some of the appetizing roadside delicacies. They look good, and we can tell you that they do taste good for the most part.
The locals seem to be enjoying street food all over Cambodia, so what’s the harm? Well, your taste buds might agree with the local taste, but your stomach might disagree with the local bugs. We’ve had visiting friends sitting on potties and hunched over faucets (or potties) for days… Even we occasionally get sick when we let our guards down.
See, folks from the city like us, have weaker stomachs than hardened Cambodian farmers, so the occasional papaya salad might turned into a toxic disaster! But never fear, with a few tips from us, you will be able to enjoy some Cambodian street fare safely.
Our rule of thumb to enjoy Cambodian street food safely: if it’s not fully cooked or if you haven’t peeled it yourself, then avoid, otherwise eat up!
Cooked meats such as grilled ribs, grilled fish, roast chicken, fried chicken, roast pork etc are fairly safe. Some street vendors might put a little too much lighter fluid to start their stoves, giving the meat a bit of a plastic or petroleum afterburn… But the experienced street chef will deliver surprisingly inspired roasts.
Traditional dishes such as beef loc lac (careful about the lettuce and raw veggies though), ginger chicken, lemongrass soup, chicken soup are safe to eat. The closer to cooking time or meals, the fresher and the tastier!
There is usually a good turnover for noodle soups and stir fried noodles, just insist on meat being well done and vegetables fully cooked.
I’ve gotten really sick on processed meats (pate and sausages). The sausage had been cooked to death, but the meat was probably just too rotten.
Friend rice and curries can get recycled over several days so unless you’re certain it is the dish of the day at your favourite stall, avoid.
Eat cooked dishes with meats and vegetables well done, ask the cook to recook if chicken is still bleeding, avoid processed meats and raw vegetables.
Fruits and Fruit Shakes
It’s fantastic to have fresh fruits on every street. It’s relatively easy to find guava, rambutans, mangosteen, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, bananas, jackfruits, dragon fruits and even exotic imports such as apples, pears or grapes!
Street vendors usually offer precut, pre-peeled fruits, but it’s OK to ask for another fruit of your picking to be peeled then and there before you gulp it down. Most fruits spoil quickly once they get peeled, so you want your fruits as fresh as can be. If you are super careful, you’ll want to carry your pocket knife around so you can do the peeling yourself (with hopefully cleaner hands).
It’s common to eat acidic fruits (green mangoes, pineapple, guava etc) with salt and freshly cut red chili. Just check with the lady that she didn’t add a bit of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) for a bit of kick. It’s appropriately called “Hajinomoto” or “bicheign” in Khmer.
Shakes and juices are to be avoided unless you have a bad case of constipation. The water might not be clean and the shaven ice might similarly be bacteria infested.
Peel and enjoy your fresh fruits, but avoid shakes and juices.
Sun baked cockles and shells
Sometimes, you’ll see a lady pushing a cart with cockles, snails and other freshwater shells that have baked in the sun for an uncertain amount of time. Unless you’ve got an ironclad stomach that we don’t, these typical Cambodian street foods should be given a pass.
First the shells are probably packed with pesticides and pollutants from agricultural runoffs (or worse municipal sewage). Second, even if they’ve been adequately pasteurised, it’s hard to tell a fresh batch from a spoilt one.
Avoid cockles and shells.
Baguettes and Breads
Because of our French heritage, you will see roadside baguette and bread sellers everywhere in Cambodia, even in the most remote areas. In fact, you’re more likely to get a baguette than to get cellphone coverage…
Roaming street vendors are heard yelling “Pain, Pain”, from the French word. Try the sugar baguette, it’s a popular snack. Some people like their bread with “beurre” , from the French butter. But it’s not butter, more likely a mixture of oil and raw eggs (not advised because of bird flu, salmonella etc).
Sandwiches filled with homemade luncheon meats and pickles can be yummy. What goes into the sandwich is a little more problematic and can make you sick.
Stick with plain bread, buns and baguette.
Desserts and Sweets
There are tons of Cambodian desserts that you can munch through the day. You don’t have to wait for the end of the meal to enjoy fried bananas. In my office, as in many workplaces throughout Cambodia, there’s always something to chew on. How can you work if you get hungry?
Cakes (“nom”), pancakes, waffles and other children’s delights are usually safe to eat. Just quickly check the hands of the lady that makes them. Clean fingernails would be nice. Coconut and liquid based desserts are also yummy but don’t keep well in the ambient heat. Better have your mango and coconut cream laced glutinous rice in a clean coffee shop than out on the streets.
Roasted bananas (they taste sweet and salty) are my favourite healthy snacks. The fried version is good too, but a little greasy if you’re watching your fat intake.
Eat fried, baked, roasted desserts, avoid liquid and cream based desserts.
Critters and Insects
Cambodians don’t traditionally eat insects. And you would never get served maggots at a Cambodian home… (unless as a very thinly veiled insult of course). Somehow, selling roaches, beetles, spiders and other critters to tourists at bus stops is relatively popular with local vendors.
Cooked, boiled, and fried seasoned insects can occasionally be found at regular wet markets. For the most part, they taste like the seasoning they’ve been cooked in (garlic, chili, MSG etc).
Crickets are the only insects that have a bit of a following among the older folks. They’re crunchy, a bit buttery if properly cooked.
Maybe eat crickets, avoid other insects.