Best tips how and why to eat with locals
Whenever we ask our guests how they found us, they answer they were looking for a way to eat with locals end get in touch with regular families. They already did the bucket list of important landmarks and buildings, but want to know not just about the past, but how people live now. And food is a good way to get together, create a calm and relaxed atmosphere and exchange cultural knowledge. We want to give you some advise how and why to eat with locals (and experience a locals place in general.)
Local food is always special
From whatever country you come, there will be one dish that is well know all over the world. In Germany it is sausage, in Thailand Green curry, in the UK fish and chips and in Cambodia probably Beef Lok Lak and Prahok. But does this really cuisines of a country? When come to a city and look for food around here, Google and Tripadvisor will present you their selection of restaurants. But is this really locals food? In many cases it is not. Most of those places for example don’t serve the Siem Reap sausage, a fat and sweet sausage usually heated on a charcoal fired BBQ.
So when you arrive in a city, better ask for the cities most famous food. Who to ask? Go to a local restaurant, ask a seller on the streets. Language problems: These days even the Khmer language is available in Google translate. Just ask “is there a local eating around me?” and follow the people’s suggestions. Avoid the tourist places, because they have to cater a wide range of taste, and usually don’t dare to go into local special food. And of course, you an always Dine With The Locals.
How to get in touch with locals?
There are many ways to get connected. When in Siem Reap, you will most likely hire a tuk tuk driver to take you around Angkor Wat and the temples. Many drivers have family members with restaurants (although some will take you to the place where they get the most commission). But there is a really good chance that you get a driver who is open minded and like to connect to travelers. If you ask him (or her), where you can eat with locals or spend a evening with locals, he may just invite you to his home. If you prefer a local restaurant, ask him where he goes when he takes his family out (but don’t be surprised when he says Pizza Company, its’ a big thing now).
In Ho Chi Minh City the best way to meet locals is to go to one of the parks in downtown in the late afternoon. Just walk around and it will not take long that someone will ask you something. Vietnamese students are eager to practise English and looking for opportunities to do so. You can meet them also in the Vietnamese coffee shops, where they just hang around, watch a movie or staring at the mobile phones. In the evening many people from Saigon walk along Nguyen Hue street next to the city hall. But you can also roam around Pham Ngu Lao to the Benh Tanh market. Recently Buy Vien street became the host spot for the local night life. an absolut must is here to have a meal at The Bun Bar, authentic Vietnamese food on a new level.
Talk with staff in your hotel
If you are travel in the low season, staff in the hotel has more time to chat with you. Most are happy to improve their English. Just be prepared that it takes a while to start a conversation. Also, many Khmer in the hospitality industry speak English at a basic level. They want improve, but you should be aware that the vocabulary and general knowledge is limited. When you are used to typical BnB food, don’t expect it in Cambodian or other Asian hotels. When you have breakfast with Khmer, they eat soup or rice, sometimes porridge, but for sure not cereals or sausages. Any chat with locals in your hotel may result in a night out. We had a guest at our Host Sarath who was so happy, that they all went together to pub street. After the dinners for ladies came the drinks for ladies.
Meal sharing is common when you eat with locals
In a Cambodian restaurant as well as in families sharing is caring. You don’t order a dish for yourself. Instead the oldest member of the party orders several dishes, and they a shared. There is no real understanding of courses – just dessert comes last – but at a wedding for example the soup is the highlight at the end. When you eat with locals the dishes come as they are prepared, one by one, in no particular order. Some family member will give you either an empty plate or one already filled with rice. Then you can pick from all the dishes on the table. One advice: do not use your spoon or fork to transfer from the plate or bowl to your plate, but the one provided. This can be confusing sometimes, since they are all the same and you easily forget if this was your spoon or not.
The use of chopstick is not very common for Khmer dishes, but for Chinese food. And since the rice noodle soup has it’s origin in China, the family will provide you chopsticks. If you eat in a local restaurant, have a look for the box at the end of the table. It’s usually a container with forks, spoons and chopsticks as well as Asian soup spoons. Talking about spoons: there is a spoon as we know it from the western world and the Asian soup spoon. You find both of them and they kind of serve the same purpose. However, the soup spoon is for sure the one you should grab when eating soup – or even some desserts, like tapioca pearls in coconut milk.
Spoons, forks and chopsticks
There is rarely a knife on the table, some say for safety reasons. But there is also not need since all food is prepared in a way that it can be eaten with just spoon and fork. Meat is cut into slices and pieces, fish as well. Because most meat, in particular chicken, will be cut from top to bottom, expect some bones in it. All kinds of meat are expensive, a whole chicken on the market cost 10 USD. It would be a waste of money to just serve you the chicken breast. The same goes for fish, expect bones as well. At least the cook removes the head and fins.
What to do and what not to when you eat with locals
Every culture has some rules and traditions, and Cambodia as well as it’s neighboring countries make to exception. When you enter a Khmer home, please leave your shoes outside. This is a rule for the inside of buildings, not for any outside seating. In some houses the elevated terrace is also considered living space. The easiest way is to watch what the others are doing. If they great you with the hand folded together, just do the same. Action is sometimes more than words and a greeting in English supported by the right action is totally appropriate.
As a guest you experience kind of a VIP treatment as it is in most cultures. Your host will serve you rice and drinks first.You may still wait until everyone else has rice on the plate. The oldest person in the family will then serve you some of the dishes on your plate or ask you to take it yourself. You don’t have to empty all the food. But you should at least try a bit from everything. If you like it, you can say “Tchnang”. The “a” pronounced like the “u” in “sung” and the “ng” pronounced as it would be at the beginning. The word means delicious, of course.
Hospitality in Cambodia
Khmer families are very friendly and open to guests. When you are traveling on the countryside, it is common that a family will wave at you and when you stop offer you some drinks – sometimes for sell. When you visit our hosts you can experience this warmth and inclusive approach to guests. The families are happy and proud to show their skills and the Khmer culture. And it is not just about cooking. Every of our hosts has their own special things to show, from basics of Aspara dance to modern art, organic farm, historic items or silk worms.
Going off the beaten path and explore the real life of people in a country is what creates unforgettable memories. We are trying to help you by giving exclusive access to local homes, while at the same time promoting local culture and supporting local families with additional income. Enjoy the experience!