new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Romdeng Again: Excellent Stuffed Squid, Still Don't Try The Spiders

Monday, November 28, 2011

Romdeng Again: Excellent Stuffed Squid, Still Don't Try The Spiders

#74 Street 174
Telephone: +855 092-219-565
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Romdeng is the Mith Samlanh street kid's charity Khmer training restaurant, affiliated with the more Western accented Friends, near Riverside. Set in an old colonial building, it's a salubrious place to try authentic Khmer dishes for a pretty good cause. The waitstaff, cooks, and I believe at least some of the management are all former street kids enrolled in hospitality training programs conducted by Mith Samlanh. It's a good idea, and, thankfully, the food is good too.

Both Romdeng and Friends do excellent frozen drinks, and I enjoyed this lychee/passionfruit/mint mixture. Would have been better with a little vodka, but this was a lunch-break-from-work type affair so I was forced to hold back.

Khmer food is reliant on grilled or roasted eggplant. Especially popular is eggplant served with ground pork and, in some cases, chopped mushrooms, as can be seen here. This dish had a pleasingly smoky flavor from both the eggplant and the oaky shitake mushrooms - definitely Cambodian and something I would order again.

Chicken stir-fried with basil and chili is one of those dishes that most Westerners would consider Thai. This is a point of enormous contention in Cambodia, of course - Khmers maintain that the Thais stole their cuisine many hundreds of years ago and added their own flourishes. A culinary historian with more free time (or a larger stipend) than myself might be able to sort this one out without igniting (another) border incident, but I'll just stick with calling it a "dish that straddles borders." Chicken with basil and chili may also be subject to contention because it's pretty darn good: fresh holy basil, some garlic, not-too-hot red chilis and some boneless chicken. I'd prefer it with bone-in chicken, though. What's with Westerners fetish for dark meat?

Cambodians also love grilled squid stuffed with things (usually's usually pork). These small grilled cephalapods were stuffed with pork stir-fried with a touch of ginger. Pretty good stuff, and not too chewy, as is the unfortunate fate of many of our underwater friends. Sniff.

This is Khmer curry with potato, green beans, pumpkin, carrot, and coconut milk. Khmer coconut milk curries taste quite different from Thai coconut milk curries. They're usually more subtle, considerably less spicy, thicker, and a bit less complex. This is often good news for those suffering from dodgy stomachs. You are unlikely to be seriously injured by Khmer food, whereas I was pretty convinced a couple times in Thailand that the chef was actually trying to kill me by means of tiny, tiny chili pod.

I don't like desserts much, with the exception of sorbet and ice cream, which can be ideal in a tropical, comically sweaty climate. (Fairly convinced people who eat warm chocolate brownies here are insane, possibly criminally so). I may or may not have forgotten what the flavors involved here were, but I know one scoop involved pineapple and the other passion fruit. I will devour anything with passion fruit in it, so the choice was easy. No, I don't care that passion fruit resembles alien brains.

The more adventurous, or at least more masochistic, can also order Cambodia's infamous fried tarantulas at Romdeng. I haven't tried em' before (no one wants to share with me, it's not my fault) but I've heard they taste pretty much like shrimp. The tarantulas are becoming an endangered species since every tourist seems to want a Facebook photo of them eating one, or at least pretending to eat one, which I believe is one of those unanticipated environmental disasters.

More accessible may be beef stir-fried with ant larvae, a Khmer dish that's often served with beer. "Ant season" tends to fall in the dry season, which stretches roughly from November to April. No, haven't tried that either. I guess I need braver family members. That's my excuse.

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