One of my most memorable dining experiences is from a roadside stand on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
After exploring much of the city and rest of the country during a journalism stint, it was time for me to head on to South Korea. I wasn’t really ready to leave, as I had grown to appreciate the laid back, friendly nature of Cambodians.
But it wasn’t my decision to make. To celebrate the great times I had in Cambodia, my new friend Mao Lada took me for a surprise dinner feast before heading off to the airport.
Together, with my friend Sarah, the three of us set out towards the airport. We passed by all the usual streets where rickety restaurants served up local Khmer cuisine. Soon we were on the outskirts of the city, nearing the airport.
Finally, Mao Lada pulled over on the side of the road to a place where local food stands had sprouted up, selling their delicacies to the locals who were all headed home after a long days work.
With bigger smiles than usual, and many looks of surprise, myself and Sarah followed Mao Lada to an available wooden platform that would serve as our table. Mao Lada quickly left us and ordered food in Khmer, returning with a wry smile, ensuring that we’d enjoy what we were about to eat.
As the sun was getting lower to the horizon, we received our drinks and appetizers. The drink of the night? Fermented palm juice. Somewhat rancid in smell, and very potent. This moonshine packed a punch.
As strong as it was, I found myself drinking plenty as were were eating unripe banana slices – with peels left on. They tasted like sawdust, even after dousing them in soy sauce. We appreciated the effort and awaited the next course.
Soon after, massive chunks of meat arrived. They looked like big red chicken legs. Nice. What was it though? Mao Lada informed us they were toad legs. Nice! Never had toad before. Sarah gingerly picked at the bone to get the good meat off, while I followed Mao Lada’s approach of eating the whole thing – bones and all.
Crunch crunch. Not bad. Bones had a bit of flavour. I can do this. IT was going well, I was getting really into it. Then I got to the toad knee, big bones and extra crunch. My teeth couldn’t handle it. Lacking the jaw power, I succumbed to the toad knee and proceeded to eat the rest of the meat only.
Could it get any better? Sitting at the side of the road eating toad legs and getting drunk on palm juice. It sure could! Next up was the grand finale – frogs. Lots and lots of little frogs. All fried up into crispy creations.
Now these were much smaller than the toad legs, but the special surprise was that we were eating the entire frogs. Heads, legs, spines – everything. Bring on more soy sauce and more fermented palm juice please!
Being skinny, these fried frogs were somewhat greasy and tasted, well, fried. I felt sorry for them as they had all obviously just been dumped into a boiling vat of oil and fried alive. But that didn’t stop me from eating more than a dozen of them. It was a real experience with a couple of great friends.
One of those meals I’ll never forget and would be happy to repeat should I ever meet up with my old friend in Cambodia again.