Chef Dylan Benoit and his brother Lucas took a summer eating adventure through Southeast Asia. This is part four of his five part series.
We arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, after a relatively short, but arduous bus ride. The main transport routes between Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh are heavily traveled dirt roads filled with mopeds carrying coconuts and buses full of chickens. They simultaneously weave to dodge pot holes and massive puddles at speeds unfit for the road conditions.
We finally reached the bus stop in Phnom Penh, grabbed our mud-covered bags, and hopped on a tuk yuk to take us straight to the hostel. Not surprisingly, we were very hungry and eager to try some authentic Cambodian Khmer food. The Khmer regional cuisine focuses on freshness and simplicity, using whatever is available and seasonal.
During the tuk tuk ride we spotted a restaurant called Tom Yum Kung, named after a very famous spicy shrimp soup flavored with galangal (a ginger root), kaffir lime leaves, mushroom and lemongrass. As luck would have it, the restaurant was around the corner from our hostel. I was eager to try an authentic version of this delicious soup that we serve at Mizu, one of my restaurants in Grand Cayman. When we sat down we were presented with a menu that was a combination of half Thai and half Khamer cuisines.
We perused the menu and picked a couple of surefire winners for an appetizer: tom yum kung soup, and the pomelo salad with poached prawns. For our main course we decided to be more adventurous with fish amok and stir fried beef with lemongrass and wood ants (yes, ants). We joked about ordering the fried tarantulas with coconut rice, but decided against it... for the welfare of the spiders.
It was 3:30pm and the place was still busy with a lunch crowd. We were the only westerners in the joint, so we knew right away we were in a good spot. The small 40-seat restaurant wasn’t much to write home about in decor, but the food was something else.
The aroma of the tom yum kung soup was divine. It was unlike any other tom yum I had ever eaten. The creaminess of the coconut milk coated my mouth and balanced out the spicy broth. The lemongrass and kaffir lime were fresh and vibrant, and when mixed with culantro (a close cousin of cilantro) and oyster mushrooms it created a perfect balance of hot, fresh, and sour.
For the pomelo salad, the pulp was tossed with fish sauce, sugar and lime and mixed with poached prawns, fresh herbs, chilies and crushed peanuts. Pomelo is like a grapefruit, but quite a bit bigger, with larger pulp that is slightly less sweet.
Amok is a very traditional Khmer dish with a thick coconut curry steamed in banana leaf. Any number of ingredients can be the main component of amok, including chicken, egg, tofu, fish, pork and shrimp. It was presented in three banana leaf cups with finely shredded cabbage on the bottom. The fish was light, flaky and incredibly moist, with a rich coconut and light curry taste.
The stir-fried lemongrass beef with wood ants arrived shortly after we tucked into the curry and wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I had expected. It looked like a normal beef stir fry with chunks of bell pepper, onion, and fried basil. However, it was also studded with large tree ants just shy of an inch long. Their segmented bodies, legs and antennae all still intact, like brown sprinkles on an ice cream sundae. Lucas was dissecting the dish with his eyes, then shrugged his shoulders and said, “When in Cambodia!” and proceeded to dig in.
I watched his expression for a few seconds while he chewed away, trying to avoid eye contact. I was half expecting him to gag, or spit it out and gargle his beer as if it were Listerine, but he didn’t. He didn’t even flinch. He finished chewing, had a sip of beer and declared, “It’s actually pretty good! The ants are a bit crunchy.” I was not stoked about this, but hey, one can’t do a food tour through Southeast Asia and not expect to eat a few insects. So I took a big bite. As it turned out he wasn’t kidding, it was pretty good.
The lemongrass was definitely a dominant flavor, with beef and garlic following right behind. The ants didn’t have any flavor, or if they did it was overpowered by the lemongrass, but they certainly had a texture. I was having trouble with the first bite, but by bite three and four, I forgot they were even in the dish.
By the time we finished the meal, we were ready to be rolled out of the restaurant. We paid our check, which came to the equivalent of about $12 CI/ $14 US for both of us, including half a dozen beers. We wandered back into the afternoon sun, our bellies full, ready to explore this exciting new city.
TOM YUM KUNG RESTAURANT
10, St. 278, BKK1, Phnom Penh 12302, Cambodia
T: +855.23.720.234 | www.tomyumkung-restaurant.com
Dylan is the chef overseeing the restaurants for the Market Street Group in Grand Cayman, which includes Craft Food & Beverage, Mizu Asian Bistro, Waterfront Urban Diner, Duke's Seafood and Rib Shack, Fidel Murphy's Public House and Lone Star Bar and Grill. Originally from Toronto, he trained with some of the top chefs in Canada, like Mark McEwan, before moving to Halifax for a few years. He took a short hiatus and travelled to Central & South America and eventually made his way the Cayman Islands.
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