Man frying insects at a food stall
Cambodia,  Culture & tradition,  Food & drink,  Friday’s Foods of the World

Exploring the street food of Phnom Penh

Did you know that the consumption of insects for food has a name, entomophagy? I didn’t, until I visited Cambodia. There, perhaps more than anywhere else, the people actively serve and eat insects. There is a dark reason behind this. Under the Khmer Rouge, much of the population was forced into poverty; and people resorted to feeding on anything they could find.

Today Cambodians continue to eat and enjoy insects. They are found on street food stalls, in markets and even on restaurant menus all around the country. To a Westerner these seem strange, even off-putting, delicacies. But, to adapt a well-known saying, when in Phnom Penh …

Thus on our first evening in the city we found ourselves embarking on a street food tour with our friendly guide Van. After enjoying a drink by the Mekong as the sun set, we were ready to get a bit more adventurous!

Some entomophagy

We took a tuk-tuk to an area where many stalls were clustered, all selling a variety of these Cambodian delicacies. Van picked out one where, she assured us, it would be safe for us to sample some. She steered us away from the giant water bugs and cockroaches (she needn’t have bothered!) But she encouraged us to try some small, deep-fried crickets (surprisingly tasty, or at least not bad!); tiny fish; small frogs to be crunched on bones and all; and silkworm cocoons. The latter were softer and less unpleasant than ones we’d sampled last year in North Korea, but not by much. I left the stall feeling glad I’d tried (almost) everything but in no hurry to repeat the experience!

The Russian Market

Next we headed to the Russian Market, which gets its name simply because it was in the past the favoured shopping place of Soviet ex-pats, here to help Cambodia rebuild after the war; also, according to Van, to teach the people that there was a better form of Communism than Mao’s.

Food stalls at night
The Russian Market

Here we strolled around, sampling some of the food Van suggested (jack fruit, rambutans, pork scratchings, a churro-like bun) and declining others. I decided against trying one of the most popular delicacies, a duck embryo in its egg, cooked in coconut water. But Chris declared himself happy to have a go (when I asked him afterwards he simply said, ‘it’s just an egg’) so we sat down while he and Van had these. She also ordered beef and pork skewers and green papaya salads, all of which were excellent.

Cracked egg
Duck egg embryo (apologies for the poor quality shot)
Spooning a piece of pale meat from a cracked egg
The contents
Woman frying on an open fire
Frying meat skewers in the Russian Market

Time for seafood

Crabs in their shells with a slice of lime
Steamed crabs

By now I was tired (I’d had just two hours sleep on our flight over) and full, but we had one more stop to make, at a roadside seafood stall. Disappointingly they had sold out of squid, which was really the only thing I fancied, but I shared a dish of prawns in curry sauce with Chris and we all shared some steamed crabs. Although, and perhaps this was down to my tiredness, I didn’t feel the admittedly tasty meat was worth the hassle of extracting it.

Van tried to press more food on us but by now we had had enough to eat and were both tired. We took the short drive back to our hotel, after a fascinating introduction to this new country and its sometimes surprising cuisine. Yet another of the many Foods of the world to be discovered when we travel!

I visited Cambodia in 2020

33 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    Hmm Sarah … I’m not sure about the insects (that’s why I will never be a contestant on these survivor shows on television 👀).
    I remember, way back in my younger days, I was a tour guide on a mine tour where they’ve started an oyster farm in one of the rehabilitated dams … on these tours we’ve invited the visitors to eat raw oysters (even with lemon juice and tabasco sauce) … and I’ve done it once as a demonstration to the tourists and since that first time, I’ve always invited a guest to show the others how it should be done 😉.
    But like you’ve said, when you’re in Phnom Penh …

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ha, yes, I’ve seen those TV shows and winced at what they are asked to eat. I’m sure I couldn’t stomach some of the items! I have eaten and not disliked raw oysters in the past but I won’t touch them these days after I had a particularly unpleasant night after eating an oyster I am sure was ‘off’!!

  • SandyL

    You are more adventurous than I. So far as street food goes, I’d rather look than taste. Having said that, I did appreciate the unusual delight of the water bugd. (They look like large cockroaches but they’re not 😉 I had a cooking class in Thailand where we bought some water bugs at the market & used them to make curry pastes. They have a heady fragrance which added a nice floral finish. Of course, I had to close my eyes to appreciate it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      See, you say I am more adventurous and yet you’ve sampled the water bugs which I declined 😆 Mind you, hidden in a curry that might be slightly less off-putting perhaps!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Wow, what interesting food! We have seen such tours on our travels but never taken one, however now seeing your post I think it would be a good idea when a country offers such unusual delicacies. We are pretty brave when it comes to trying things but that would really encourage us to do more.

  • Oh, the Places We See

    We took a similar tour in Hanoi. We both said No to duck embryo. Just couldn’t stand the appearance let alone the taste. I’m also pretty sure we would have passed up the crickets as well. Love these pictures. And we love markets on the other side of the world!!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m happy you enjoyed the photos 😀 We did a similar tour in Hoi An on this same trip but the food was much less challenging – seafood, dumplings, pancakes etc. We had booked to do one in Saigon too but decided to cancel it as we wanted to eat a couple of the regular restaurants near our hotel and try a local micro-brewery too 🙂

  • maristravels

    I think you are very brave. I’ve only ever tried deep-fried crickets which were a bit like crisps but less tasty, I thought. The others I just gave a firm ‘no’ to. Once in Chiang Rai the dish of choice was rat which I very firmly pushed away and my host explained “Oh, don’t worry, it’s black rat and they are very clean”. Still, no thank you. I love Asia, the culture, the people, the sights and smells but the food, outside of the main towns, I do not like. It’s such a shame, I’m sure I miss a lot and often my hosts are puzzled as to why I can’t eat their food. If I can have fish I’m happy, but please don’t spoil it by smothering it with chillies!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I don’t mind some chilli – I used to be able to eat more but these days it disagrees with my digestive system which is another reason for being cautious. I used to say I’d try anything once but that was before I realised what ‘anything’ entailed in some countries 😆 I *think* I would have braved the rat in your position, if served by someone I trusted.

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Oh my! I don’t know if I could eat any of that….if that was my only diet……..hmmmmm, I guess I would, but I think I’d eat flowers first……They ate the bulbs of all the flowers in St Petersburg, Russia, during WWII to keep from starving, well many still starved! I hope this is never anyones “Only Choice” again………

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I guess any of us would eat anything rather than starve. The crickets were tolerable as they were fried with lots of chilli, and the tiny fish were like whitebait which I happily eat at home. But the frogs were awful (crunchy bone!) and I couldn’t face the duck egg embryo. Maybe if I’d been less shattered by then (we’d been up for over 24 hours by this point) I might have been brave enough to have one small mouthful from Chris’s?

  • margaret21

    Of these, the only thing I could have had the chance to try was silk worm cocoons – like you, in Korea. But the smell appalled us, so we didn’t. Children loved them though. I’ve got a long way to go, but will hide behind my almost-vegetarian diet to justify my small-mindedness.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      The cocoons we ate in N Korea didn’t smell, I think because they were too dried out and ancient! We were in the one department store that tourists are allowed to visit, where you can change money into the local currency and shop alongside the locals 😀 We only bought a couple of packets of sweets for the long coach journeys and then retired to the top floor along with a few others from our group. That’s given over to a food hall sort of set-up, with a draught beer bar. We bought pints for about 5 pence 😆 And one guy bought a small plate of the cocoons which are served as popular bar snacks much as we would buy nuts. I tried a couple – it was like eating very thin crisp paper, or how I imagine that would be. Maybe greaseproof paper that’s been in the oven and slightly caught it the heat?!!

  • Nemorino

    I didn’t know the word entomophagy, but it’s logical because hippophagy means eating horsemeat.

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