Eight Incredible Things We Ate in Singapore and Cambodia (and New York)

The last two weeks have involved super fun, almost vacation-like visits to a new dentist for my third round of scaling and root planing procedures. If you don’t know what this is, you are extremely fortunate.

I’ve actually had it done twice before, but my new dentist (and my x-rays) suggested that I had not had it done properly, and there was significant plaque buildup. So back in I went for a couple of two-hour sessions involving lots of numbing shots to the mouth and ultrasonic instruments that make your eardrums buzz for ages afterwards.

All of which is to say, I’m glad I did not get this done before our trip to Singapore, Cambodia and Hong Kong. Because this trip was all about the food and the eating. A lot of eating. So much eating, of so much good food. The memories of all that great food helped me get through the two-hour dentist appointments.

Here’s a list of my favorite things we ate this trip, starting with New York, Singapore and Cambodia (Hong Kong is getting its own post. IT WAS JUST THAT GOOD.)

Birthday at Le Bernardin
Me with the first of SEVERAL birthday desserts this trip. This one at Le Bernardin.

Kingfish caviar at Le Bernardin, New York

We started the super awesome around-the-world birthday extravaganza in New York. We went up to the city the night before our Singapore flight, and lucked out on getting reservations at Le Bernardin. It cost a small fortune, but we had the Chef’s tasting menu. My perennial dining companion XFE pointed out that it was pretty unlikely we’d ever be there again, so why not splash out? (He’s a very good boyfriend).

This place, which in case you didn’t know, has three Michelin stars, is freaking amazing. Like, really, really nice. Far too nice for the likes of me. My voice is too loud, I hunch over my food, I eat and drink too fast, I gush a lot, and I wasn’t even sure what the small stool next to my chair was (to hold your purse, naturally). So, quite naturally, I started our dinner by knocking over my amuse bouche of soup. I swear, XFE can’t take me anywhere nice.

At Le Bernardin, the focus is on fish and there were several simply prepared all-stars, but my favorite was the kingfish caviar–a warm “sashimi” of kingfish, topped with Osetra caviar and a light butter broth. It was luxurious and briny and melted in your mouth. The seared wagyu beef with fresh kimchi was also amazing – fatty and unctuous – and I don’t even like kimchi.

Two sidenotes: my favorite thing about Le Bernardin (next to the purse stool) was that the huge round chairs swiveled out so you didn’t have to scoot your chair away from the table to get up. You merely turned to the side and gently lifted up and out of the seat. Classy. Oh, and we saw Eric Ripert peak his head into the dining room at one point. I was star-struck.

Kueh Pie Tee
I don’t remember ours having shrimp on them, but the plastic container presentation and everything else was the same (Not my photo. Click for link)

Kueh Pie Tee Cups at a weird Singapore food court

We only spent a couple of days in Singapore, but the food scene made a huge impression on me. We decided not to hire a tour guide and just did a few self-guided walks from the Lonely Planet Pocket Singapore guidebook. One of those walks took us through Katong, the heart of Singapore’s Peranakan neighborhood.

It was hot as popping grease, so after an hour or so we ducked into a non-descript mall/office-like building full of floor after floor of educational centers. It was surreal. There were so many independent learning centers. As this blogger put it, “Let’s face it, Singaporeans are as obsessed with learning as they are obsessed about food.”

We made our way up to a food court crammed with families and kids taking a break from learning and went in search of something to snack on when we came across these little cups that looked sort of like corn chips stuffed with pickled veggies and topped with a dollop of sweet and spicy sauce. We had no idea what they were, but they weren’t expensive so we tried them.

They were…interesting. Not bad, but definitely different. They’re apparently a very popular Peranakan treat, so at least we were going native.

Singapore chili crab
That is one happy, sweaty girl about to get real, real messy.

Chili Crab at Jumbo Seafood in Singapore

My absolute favorite thing, hands down, entire trip. I am in love with chili crab. Obsessed with it, really.

We had it our last day at a seafood restaurant that’s actually a chain in Singapore, but is still highly recommended by a lot of people, in no small part because it actually has air conditioning. We got there right before the restaurant was closing for the afternoon and the staff was not into any dilly dallying, even going so far as to bring us our check immediately after delivering our food.

We quickly ordered a kilo of crab which came cooked in a lidded-cast-iron pot surrounded by a sweet and slightly spicy red chili sauce (undoubtedly processed, probably made by Heinz) until the crab gets all tender and flavors the sauce with it’s awesome crabbiness, which you then sop up with these little fried buns called man tau. And, it goes great with Tiger beer, obviously.

It’s messy a hell and they don’t give you napkins (weirdest custom….nowhere in Singapore provides you with napkins. You have to bring your own. I went through a lot of WetWipes and Kleenex in Sinapore). The Chinese ladies at the table next to us had come fully prepared with a Ziploc bag full of napkins and even plastic gloves. Smart.

Cambodian fish amok at Chanrey Tree in Siem Reap
My third or fourth fish amok at Chanrey Tree in Siem Reap

Fish Amok Everywhere in Cambodia

I had Cambodia’s national dish about four times over the course of our seven days there, and I still felt like I hadn’t tried is enough. I ate it at small, touristy-type places near Angkor Wat and an upscale version with scallops at the Park Hyatt in Siem Reap.

Basically, it’s a fish curry in coconut milk. It contains a local fish (usually the humble snakehead fish), something also called noni leaves, crushed peanuts, and lemongrass, among other ingredients. It’s not too spicy, especially for a curry. Apparently, it’s often steamed in banana leaves, but almost every time I had it, it was served in a coconut shell.

Beef Lok Lak in Phnom Penh

This is a beef stir fry type dish that I only managed to order once (see Amok obsession above) and then immediately regretted that I hadn’t ordered it more often. Still mad at myself on that one.

The beef is marinated in soy sauce and garlic, stir-fried in a sauce made of ketchup, fish sauce and sugar, and served with a dipping sauce of lime juice and Kampot peppers, usually with red onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber on the side.

The Vietnamese have something similar known as “shaking beef.” Gotta love that.

Lotus seeds in Cambodia

Lotus seeds on the side of the road

We hired a tour guide for three days to take us to Angkor Wat and all the assorted other temples around Siem Reap. On our third day, we took a break from the temples and went to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake (which I’ll talk about more in another post).

It was a great day, and as we drove back from the Mekong River, the car was quiet while we took in the surrounding scenery of lotus fields, rice paddies, outdoor lean-tos full of hanging, drying fish, open burners cooking down palm sugar, and makeshift roadside stalls selling sugar cane juice. Almost every home in Cambodia has some sort of small business set up alongside the busy roads.

While our guide Nak was explaining to us that the fields were lotus fields, he mentioned that you could eat the seeds contained in the pods. We stopped on the side of the road where a woman was selling lotus pods out of a push cart, and Nak showed us how to shuck them and eat them. They tasted very fresh and green, sort of watery with a very slight sweetness. It’s one of my favorite travel memories.

The very night we saw them listed as an ingredient at a high-end restaurant we went to for my actual birthday dinner (see below).

Cuisine Wat Damnak menu
Cuisine Wat Damnak menu.

Dinner at Cuisine Wat Damnak

This place came highly recommended from a variety of online sources (including 50 Best), but we were told we would need to make a reservation. Turns out, they were closing the restaurant for a summer break on March 7, so the last meal service would just happen to be on my birthday.

In a word, everything was fantastic. The dining room was quaint and cozy, the service fairly attentive. My one note was that there was no background music, which for some reason, felt weird to me.

We did the tasting menu, which was a whopping $28 US per person. My favorite dish was a pork shank cooked in carmelized palm sugar and star anise with sliced lotus pods and topped with lotus seeds. It was sweet and meaty and just fell apart.

They also had some very inventive cocktails, including a pomelo and ginger martini, a pineapple-infused whiskey sour and a purple dragonfruit sangria.

We were one of the last tables of the night, so we got a chance to chat with the chef, a French expat who used to work in the kitchen at the Park Hyatt. He explained that they were closing the restaurant for a couple of months so he could go to a conference in Singapore, and so that his wife could get settled in Thailand. She was pregnant with their second child and apparently, the hospitals are better in Thailand.

He didn’t seem to mind me gushing over his pork dish.

We asked him about the lotus seeds and told him how we’d just had some for the first time earlier that afternoon. He said he buys his lotus pods from a woman at the market fairly regularly, a few pounds at a time. Finally one day the woman asked him what he did with all those pods, and he explained that he used them in soups and a whole bunch of other dishes, and the seeds as garnish. She seemed impressed and said she’d never thought of using the like that before.

Stir fry with ants
Look very closely. There are tiny little ants on that beef.

Stir Fried Beef with Red Tree Ants at Friends Restaurant

You can’t get out of Cambodia without eating at least one insect. At Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh, we decided to go the fairly easy route and eat ants for lunch (rather than the crispy tarantulas at Friends’ sister restaurant Romdeng).

Friends is part of a group of restaurants with a really great mission: they reach out to at-risk young people and give them training and jobs in their restaurants, while helping them go to school and support their families.

The stir fried red tree ants with beef and holy basil were pretty underwhelming. You couldn’t really even taste the ants. Still, after a couple of bites, we figured we’d made Anthony Bourdain proud and could leave the rest behind.

We did eat that same night at Romdeng, but instead of tarantulas, I had a really good five spice crispy pork belly with pickled cabbage. It was awesome, if less adventurous.

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