Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Seafood in Phsar Leu Market, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

There's about the same, very straightforward algorithm to having seafood dinners from markets around the world: you pick, you pay, let them cook it for you, enjoy. The experience can vary from rather simple, if linguistically challenging, like in Abu Dhabi's Al Mina, to quite intimidating and nearly fraught with trauma like in Maputo's Mercado de Peixe. Sometimes, you end up cooking yourself, like in Split's Ribarnica or Venetian Pescheria, because cooking in the market is not a done thing (any more?). Sometimes, they do all the job for you, except for chewing: it can come out sublime, like in Barcelona's Boqueria, or seriously underwhelming, like in London's Billingsgate Market.

Geared with our experience in the above, it was a cinch to get hold of our  fruits de mer fix in Sihanoukville's Phsar Leu Market. It's a sprawling, pungently smelly venue in the centre of Cambodia's prime sea resort city. Although it would not pass even the most lenient Health and Safety inspection, I would not trust it any less than any restaurant or market in the West. Thing is that despite its striking organic messiness, there is a very clear distinction between the clean and the unclean: food and waste are always kept on different levels, separated by space or the walls of buckets and tubs. If you let your nose be your guide, you will also realise that despite the omnipresent odour of discarded waste disintegrating in the tropical climate, the food itself is so fresh, clean and properly chilled that it only smells the way it's supposed to: chicken like chicken, fruit like fruit, and fish like the sea. Placated by our supermarkets' odourless displays of  ostensible hygiene, we are ignorant of the amount of unnatural processing as well as food waste that goes into maintaining that. Besides, following recent revelations by the media, not all that looks shiny clean is necessarily germs-free: e.g., 8 out of 10 chicken in UK supermarkets in 2014 were contaminated with campilobacter. In other words, it is our own complacent obliviousness that lulls us into a false sense of Western superiority when it comes to cleanliness. In Phsar Leu, you see how food is handled in front of your eyes, in Tesco's we have no idea what goes on in the backroom. So those feeling oh-so-superior in relation to the "locals", get a life!

The variety of seafood in Phsar Leu is quite decent. Oysters (all on the smallish side) are sold shucked and thus, sadly, deprived of their juice, so not to be enjoyed raw but rather grilled over coals with a dab of XO sauce.

Various kinds of clam-looking shellfish are on offer. Shellfish is steamed or grilled to be eaten with spicy dips, or stir-fried with herbs and garlic.
Live crabs and shrimp are sold in aerated water tanks. Prices range from US$5 per kilo for smallish spider crabs and shrimp to US$10 for large mantis shrimp and largish stone crabs. Everything above that is a foreign tourist surcharge and I wouldn't even bother because, say, live crabs at London's Brixton market are sold at 6 quid per kilo.
Whatever you have bought can be cooked (=steamed) for 50 cent or 2000 Khmer real per kilo. The surly mama will promptly stab your crabs' brains to put out them out of their misery...
and put them in wicker trays to steam for 10-15 minutes.
To be honest, I think mantis shrimp, just like rock lobster, is best fried Thai style with garlic. At the moment, we had no choice.
Steamed crabs.
There is enough funky fruit of the sea in the market, like these meat-looking shells. Sadly, my macaronic Khmer did not allow me to inquire  more about it...
For those into shark steaks (not yours truly though), they got it covered too.
The Occheuteal beach is a magical place to enjoy your seafood. You can bring your own and as long as you order something else, the restaurant proprietors do not mind. The beach itself is not yet overdeveloped and overrun by tourists (probably, because most can't pronounce the name). The setup with comfy wicker chairs and candles in the Beachy Bar is perfect, the Khmer seasoning sense is so much more flattering for the food than the Thai penchant for fire-eating and the prices are still well affordable. At night, the sky becomes full of fire floats and fireworks, and music only starts blasting after 10PM. Some food shops just behind the beach have very decent wines. They do not yet sell chilled whites so I would drop by in the daytime, hide a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc in a cooling case behind the rows of Coke and Fanta and pick it up nicely chilled in the evening. Perfect for your freshly cooked seafood.