Down a dark alley in one of Phnom Penh's least affluent suburbs thick, meaty smoke billows out from a long row of food joints. Beneath the corrugated tin roofs, men huddle around beer-soaked tables lit up by fluorescent lights. The choice is limited: a couple of salads and dips to go with the only source of protein – dog.
While my dining adventures in Cambodia didn't go so far as dog, insects, or snakes, I did manage to try some interesting local foods during my quick trip. Sadly, I didn't investigate Cambodian food beforehand so I missed out on gems like grilled bananas, Khmer iced coffee, and pumpkin custard, but I did get my fill of fresh mango and avocado smoothies and crunchy spring rolls with Asian basil. The assortment of tropical fruits was amazing, from passion fruit and guava to lychees and dragon fruit. Hands down my favorite Cambodian specialty was happy pizza along the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh; my small cheese pizza arrived at the table with what looked like spinach and a generous helping of green powder.
Behind so many food options in Cambodia is the stark reality that many citizens struggle with poverty and hunger today. Lasting affects from the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime in the 1970s carries most of the blame for the country's current dire state. In fact, that's where the country's bizarre snacks of snails, bugs, and more come from: the peoples' desperate need to get protein in their diet under Pol Pot's harsh rule when millions died of starvation and other cruelties. Another curious food relic of Cambodia's past is the baguette, which vendors stuff with sandwich ingredients and sell from a cart; the baguette (obviously) comes from the French colonial rule from 1863 to 1953.
Backyard Cafe in Phnom Penh
With so many expats and NGOs in the country, Cambodia has a surprising amount of trendy restaurants with food from all over the world. In Phnom Penh, I popped into the Backyard Cafe for a quick vegan lunch and was not disappointed. I ordered a cold-pressed juice and one of those trendy "bowls" for about $10, expensive for Cambodia but a good meal nonetheless.