To walk out of our hotel in Phnom Penh recently and be greeted with a dining setting all-too-familiar was on one level disconcerting. Hadn't I just a few hours earlier at breakfast hoisted myself up from little formica furniture at the phở shop in Hanoi? Wasn't the whole purpose of travelling to another country, albeit close by, to experience a different sensibility, to sharpen one's dulled perceptions, to sit at a new table? Would there be a peculiar waft on the air from the kitchen? Or did the decor suggest just another bowl of comfort noodles?
On another level, I felt immediately acclimatized and ready for whatever this streetside diner had to offer. A distance of 1600 kilometres must surely have also put some culinary miles between me and my departure point. To have a menu for streetfood, for one thing, was distinctly different. For the menu to be listing more than a dozen dishes made it encyclopaedic compared to the 'one dish wonders' of Vietnam. For it to be in Khmer, not romanized as Vietnamese is, made it impossible for me to negotiate. So, to an extent, I was feeling the uncomfortable adrenalin of travelling to a new place.
For getting food to plastic table, I would resort to tried and tested means; gawking at the plates of others and poking about the food preparation area, techniques considered by most to be not only rude but also not permitted when a common language is the conduit for completing such transactions. Here, in these circumstances, our common goal (ours to get fed, theirs to feed me and take our money) bonds customer and server, allowing the aforementioned alternative methodology. I would grunt, point and smile my way to a full stomach.
This is made easy when the 'kitchen' is a mere half-dozen steps away on the footpath. I would stand by my teenage cook at the grill, a sizeable coal-fired barbeque putting colour and heat into pork ribs and chicken thighs. I would partially unwrap a foil parcel to identify its contents; crab lying with lemongrass and ginger. Shrimps clamped together in sticks would not need long over the fire. I indicated my preferences.
And then, on my neighbour's table as I pass by, there are fresh rice noodles fashioned into a salad, flecked with red, promising spice. On a square white plate, a perfect specimen of food, the noodles complemented with beef, onion, sawtooth coriander and chili; it looks like restaurant food not street food. But that is not a reason not to add it to our order.
We are forced to commandeer another table. A green salad of crinkle-cut carrot and cucumber, sawtooth coriander and lime wedges comes cooled with shaved ice, taking up space along with the condiments basket and large plastic bottles of green and red chili sauce, both fiery. Table re-arranging is standard rigmarole at street food eateries and moreso here, as each new dish arrives demanding attention.
By the end, the plates are stacked and empty and we're full and at ease with our new street food environment. That terrible T-shirt cliche expresses the situation well.
It's all a little bit 'same same but different.'
Cnr. Pasteur (St. 51) & Preah Ang Phanauvong (St. 240)