Flavors of Kampot

Once a colonial backwater known for its sleepiness, this former fishing village on the southeastern coast of Cambodia is rapidly becoming the country's culinary capital

Arriving at Kampot is like finding an oasis in the desert. You drive through miles and miles of nondescript countryside, roaring past market towns with their dirt roads and rotisserie chicken spinning in the dust, until at last karst mountains spring up out of the earth, and you - the sign you’ve finally arrived in civilization - stop at traffic lights.

Located 150 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, the journey takes roughly three and half hours down Highway Three, though that depends on whether or not you get stuck behind a convoy of sand-carrying trucks, in which case you could easily be on the road an hour longer. Elsewhere, the fun thing about road trips has been stopping off at rest stops for a bite to eat (Malaysia was excellent for this), or pulling over in Canada to see the world’s biggest something or other (I’m looking at you here, Vegreville). However, Cambodia is not there yet, and so it’s usually a straight dash from point A to point B.

A popular destination for weekenders from Phnom Penh, Kampot is a sleepy city that sits just upriver from the open ocean. With its sheltered stretch of river, it’s long been the launch point for a fleet of small fishing boats that head out into the sea in the early evening, mainly hunting squid (if you sit on the pier after sunset at the Sailing Club in nearby Kep, you can recognize the boats bobbing up and down by their green lanterns, a color that fools the squid into thinking it’s the moon). The seafood the boats bring in is mostly sent to feed hungry diners in the capital, but some remains in Kampot, and is served up at a number of local restaurants, such as at The Fish Market, which occupies a restored Art Deco building built by the French in the 1930s, right on the waterfront.

Directly opposite is the Old Market, built around the same time. Once a busy entrepôt of produce vendors, these days its periphery has been taken over by a slew of eateries, with many others flowing over into the surrounding streets, all occupying the colonial-era architecture that the city has become famed for. Unlike Phnom Penh, Kampot still remains low-rise, its heritage-filled heart drawing in visitors as well as a substantial expat population attracted by the cheaper cost of living. It is one of the main reasons - alongside being a popular backpacker stop - that despite being a provincial backwater, this small city is home to the biggest variety of cuisines you’ll find outside the capital.

It was a surprising discovery on a recent visit, when we had gone to check out the new luxury resort Amber Kampot. Sat on the riverside opposite the city, on the charmingly named Fish Island (because of its many fishing villages), Amber is the first boutique property in the area, offering a select number of one- and two-bedroom pool villas set around a central fish-filled lagoon, that rises and falls with the tide. There’s a small beach area, and fine-dining restaurant, which served up an amazing breakfast, but in the evening we often found ourselves requisitioning the hotel boat for a short journey across the river, stepping up onto stone docks, and heading in search of new flavors.

The choices are vast. One night we went for Indian at Simon’s Tandoor (no relation), where they served up a smorgasbord of tasty northern and southern treats in a simple setting, including vegetable samosas, butter chicken, palak paneer with spiced ground spinach, tandoori prawn, and many more mouthwatering dishes. Needless to say, we ordered way too much. On another evening we went for handmade pasta and dessert at Marina Deli, where friendly Venetian couple Mauro and Giovanna put their passion for Italian family food on your table, with a daily changing menu of comfort dishes like lamb ragout, tagliatelle with shrimps and asparagus, and tiramisu. They also make all of their own deli meats and breads, as well as selling pizza by the slice, making it the perfect takeaway for the journey back to Phnom Penh, which is what we did later on.

Along the way to Marina, walking along a darkened street, we’d passed Jetzt Kampot, a hipster looking bar (think exposed brick and polished concrete) full of young bearded types that looked like a great place for a craft beer or two. I discovered later that it also serves a mean Swedish meatball, and a Big Mac that makes the original look like a teeny Mac. One for next time. Not far around the corner, close to the old iron bridge that crosses the river, is a favorite, Ecran Noodles, which serves up the closest thing to la mian we’ve had in Cambodia. Essentially, Chinese noodle soup, you choose between beef, Peking duck, or vegetable servings, ordered with a side of steamed dumplings. It’s cheap, easy and delicious, and the perfect lunch while you’re exploring the town.

That said, others might plump for the paninis and salads at DeliCious, an amazing little French delicatessen that serves up delicious (yes, the name’s not a misnomer) fresh food from breakfast to dinner using locally sourced ingredients, such as the pumpkin stuffed with pulled pork and spiced up with Kampot pepper. Speaking of which, we’d be amiss not to mention the spice that in recent years has done so much to spread the city name, with farms like La Plantation bringing this once celebrated fruit, held in the highest regard by Parisian chefs in the 20th century, to tables throughout the Kingdom and beyond. But back to Kampot, where it’s probably time for dessert.

If you’ve not realized by now, you’re really spoiled for choice, but the Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace actually does what it says on the tin, or in this case, the plate. We can’t get enough of their range of remarkable pies, from the apple crumble with vanilla ice cream, to the strawberry cake, lemon meringue or Nanaimo bar - it’s all truly great. Because Kampot’s such a small city, it’s an easy walk from anywhere to get here. For us, this was the last port of call before catching our hotel boat back to Amber, and a car ride to the big city the next day, but what will take us back to Kampot are all the places we didn’t visit - the Asian fusion at Atelier on the riverside, Portuguese treats at Tertulia, or the freshly roasted coffee at Cafe Espresso, which lies on the road to Kep.

But wait, I’ve forgotten one. The night before leaving, we had possibly the best meal in Kampot at Twenty Three, a remarkable, unassuming bistro down a side lane, which serves food worthy of the finest tables in Phnom Penh. Loosely styled as European cuisine made with locally sourced seasonal ingredients, the changing menu sees dishes like slow-cooked lamb shank in white wine and rosemary sauce, smoked fish salad with horseradish dressing, chicken liver pate with sourdough toast, and a scrumptious banoffee pudding. It’s all washed down with French wines or local craft beers from the likes of Fuzzy Logic and Stonehead. It defies logic that such good food can be found in a sleepy little backwater town. But this is truly an oasis - an oasis in a culinary desert.