Cambodians like complex mixes of ingredients and flavors with their basic white rice. Beef and fish are commonly served together in soup. Vegetable soup usually has beef stock. Order simple fried noodles with an egg at the market, and it will be served with pork crumbles on top. You can say “Atay sac, som doh” (no meat, please) but no one is going to believe that you really mean it. Vegetables generally don’t stand alone in Khmer cuisine. As a vegetarian I had to adapt—or die. After all, I am a guest.
Actually, there is a variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from here, but as a newcomer you’ll want to take it slowly, particularly with raw foods. The Double Dragon will visit you sooner or later. Put that off as long as possible by modeling good hygiene practices. Wash your produce! Wash your hands! Don’t eat too much of a good thing. I heard a story about a Peace Corps Volunteer who ate ten ripe mangos at a sitting. It was something she deeply regretted a few hours later.
Spalding Gray remarked in his monologue Swimming to Cambodia that during the time of the Khmer Rouge people lived on “bugs, bark, and leaves.” It’s a menu that is still on the table here. Once I came home to find the big pink plastic washbasin in the kitchen filled with live black snakes. It’s what’s for dinner! At family celebrations snakes, frogs, and sometimes spiders are proudly served. Be a good sport and try what is offered. At least once. But if you are snake-intolerant (or wish to be snake-free) as I am, you can politely refuse, because it’s also impolite to puke at the dinner table.
My advice to incoming vegetarian Peace Corps Volunteers and visitors is to try to integrate into your community with curiosity rather than revulsion at the menu. You have come to Cambodia to experience its culture and customs, right? How you integrate with food is indicative of how you will integrate into your family and village. You can’t be too picky or expect to get truly vegetarian dishes unless you make it yourself. However, one must respect one’s temple spiritually as well as physically. Personally, after nearly forty years of not eating meat my body vehemently says no to pork products. Cannot do it. Still, I try not to be Ms. Princess Pea and turn up my nose at what the rest of family is eating.
Last week, for instance, my host mother made a dish with a type of fish that looked like a miniature Loc Ness monster. Out of the steaming soup these creatures raised their dead eyes and pointy teeth like a scene from a piscine zombie apocalypse movie. I said, “Looks delicious—and I’ll just have a little rice, thanks.”