Cozy, Nostalgic, Deep Fried: a Cambodian Love Story

The sky slowly turned black as the wind picked up. Rainy season in Cambodia shows itself in bursts. Suddenly, Tonga had a snack revelation.

“I really wanna eat Fried Stuff.”

When he makes this particular pronouncement – and yes, it has happened before – it doesn’t mean that any deep-fried snack will do. Tonga is talking about a specific assortment of vegetables, baguette, tofu, and fish and meatballs. They’re coated in a savoury, sticky fish paste and deep fried to umami perfection.

I don’t know the Khmer name for this snack, but I do know Fried Stuff is the best when it’s fresh out of the oil and dipped into a little hoisin sauce mixed with pickled garlic-chili. I also know that some other Asian countries have their own version of it, too. (Mekong babies, amirite?)

My snacking philosophy is different in Cambodia. See, I know that when my husband was a kid he couldn’t always afford to eat what he wanted to. Imagining Little Tonga watching other kids wolfing down the snack he wanted just breaks my heart every time. So whenever we’re in Cambodia my practice is just to encourage him to eat whatever he wants. That goes double for the special snacks I know he used to crave.

Sometimes Tonga recognises a scent as we drive past it on the motorbike. I love those moments. I love to hear the stories that go with his food memories. Maybe it’s that he used to eat it with his dad once in a great while, or that his friends used to buy it but he couldn’t. Or he remembers the first time he was back in Cambodia as an adult and able to buy it for himself. Whatever it is, my heart melts.

“Get it!!” I cry. “Get whatever you want!”

Emily in Australia is more about that grocery budget life.

It was much the same on that rainy season day when Tonga mentioned Fried Stuff. As soon as he said it, I had to make sure he got it.

Fortunately for his memories and both our stomachs, a Fried Stuff seller is conveniently located just a moment’s walk from his family’s home.  We ignored the keen chance of heavy rain and took our seats on the low plastic stools common to street food vendors across Asia. We joined a group crowding around the metal tables surrounding the Fried Stuff maker, an older aunty who has seen us before. She glanced up and then returned to her work with a smile of recognition.  

We asked her for an assortment of snacks, most of them coated in flavorful, sticky fish paste before they are fried. My personal favourites are the baguette, snake bean clusters, and tofu pieces. There are also bitter melon pieces, okra, crunchy wontons, fish balls and beef balls to choose from.

Condiment trays for Cambodian street food vary depending on the main dishes being sold. The Fried Stuff trays feature hoisin sauce, pickled garlic with chili, ground pepper, salt, and a little sugar. I like to make my dip of hoisin sauce and the chili garlic. As we neared the end of our snack, the wind picked up.

With the wind came another snack revelation.

“You know…what I really want is Those Eggs.”

“Get them!” I mumbled, encouraging him through a mouthful of Fried Stuff.

Now, I can tell you the Khmer name for Those Eggs. It’s pong tea khon, or “duck child egg,” a.k.a. eggs containing a duck embryo. They’re steamed and served with lots of “duck egg mint,” also known in some circles as “Vietnamese mint.”  

As the eggs arrived and Tonga happily topped them with ground pepper, the rain began to pour with a vengeance. We looked at each other with wry smiles. Grandma's house isn't far from the Fried Stuff vendor but if we left then we’d be drenched. Not only with rain, but with runoff from tarp awnings and roofs. Questionable runoff. Runoff that’s hard to avoid when you’re picking your way down a duong ham, or alley, avoiding other people and motorbikes.

“Let’s get more Fried Stuff.” I suggested. “We can’t leave yet.”

And so we did.

That day is a core memory for me.

Mid-2022 and our first trip to Cambodia since the pandemic. Packing ourselves around the small table on low stools, tropical rainy season in full swing. The aunty deep-frying with resting happy face. Tonga eating a food he craves when we’re at home in Australia. I think that's one of the moments I realised that Cambodia, too, can be a cozy place.

Earlier this year we spent six weeks in Asia but didn't see the Fried Stuff aunty in her normal spot. We speculated, sadly, that COVID put her out of business. We wondered what she was doing now. Then one day Tonga came home from errands with good news.  We hadn’t noticed her at her usual spot right on the sidewalk because she’d had a major glow up. Her business had upgraded to a newly built store front, with several proper tables and even more seats. There’s even a whole separate area for ordering and cooking and staff helping her cook and serve.

Though it’s not as cozy as before, the Fried Stuff is just as delicious. The new space is bright and clean. And though I look back on the times crouching around the aunty preparing our snacks with fond feelings, I can’t help but be glad for her. Seeing her able to not only upgrade but expand the business is exciting. Cambodia contains big stories, but it holds thousands of these small stories, too. Srok Khmer’s stories include everyday success like this one and that’s worth celebrating.

A country is a result of its past, but dreams, success, and even failures make up its present and influence its future. We're proud to witness Cambodia's walk into hope and a future.

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