If you are a new visitor to Cambodia, there is one sight you may quickly become accustomed to. Cambodians rarely eat breakfast at home, and if you are out and about in the early morning, be it in the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh or in the more rural areas, you will see the ubiquitous roadside eateries, usually part of a shophouse, with full tables for a couple of hours each morning. If you investigate closer, then you will find many of the customers are eating a similar dish; Num Banh Chok, one of Cambodia’s most popular breakfast choices.
What is Num Banh Chok?
Num Banh Chok are the rice noodles on which this dish is based, but it is also the general name for the dish itself. There is a Cambodian myth – or is it legend? – that these rice noodles were invented here and not in China. Whether there is any truth to this is lost in the mists of time.
The noodles can be served in a number of ways, and there are also several provincial variations to the dish, so the Num Banh Chok you eat in Phnom Penh may differ greatly from that tried in Mondulkiri. The version in Siem Reap goes heavier on coconut milk and garlic and comes with a sweeter sauce, but my own favourite is the Kampot version which is served with local shrimp, fish sauce, and peanuts, so if you find yourself in that beautiful riverside town, get up early and join the locals for a fantastic breakfast.
Cambodia’s most popular and common breakfast choices
The most common versions are served either with a Khmer curry called Somlor Kari, or with a freshwater fish soup called Somlor Proher. You will also find these wonderful rice noodles served in a variety of soups with the meat or seafood of your choice and with any of the amazing local vegetables including beansprouts, cucumber, chilies, banana blossoms etc., as well as local fragrant herbs such as basil or mint.
If you want to go a little more ‘upmarket’, there is even a Royal version of Num Banh Chok which includes cognac and chicken livers. Though with the cognac added, this may be a better food choice later in the day rather than first thing in the morning! And while it may be the staple breakfast of many Cambodians, you will also find that it is popular as a mid-afternoon ‘snack’ when those same shophouse eateries experience another rush of business.
No two Num Banh Choks ever taste the same
Beyond the shophouse restaurants, you will also find Num Banh Chok sold by many mobile vendors, particularly in the early mornings. If you spot a Cambodian lady with baskets hanging from a pole across her shoulders wandering the streets around any of the markets or side streets, then there is a very good chance that she is selling rice noodle dishes.
If you go to a different eatery or vendor each time you want to try this dish, then no two Num Banh Choks ever taste the same. Get away from the repetitive blandness of western breakfasts and try a bowl of these tasty rice noodles soon!