In its simplest form, num banh chok is the perfect dish to eat in warm weather: rice noodles topped with a cool fish gravy and crisp raw vegetables including cucumbers, banana blossom, and water lily stems and fresh herbs!
Probably the most famous num banh chok comes from Phnom Penh (or around the city), but of course there are also many regional variations, such as Kampot-style num banh chok, which relies on locally-produced sweet dried shrimp, coconut cream, fish sauce and peanuts. Siem Reap – where I tasted my latest sampling – has its own version, which has more garlic and coconut milk than the original, and is served with a sweet sauce called tik pha em. Sometimes, the Siem Reap version is served with a curry chicken sauce made with shrimp paste and yams. Regardless of which version you try, you can be sure that you will be sampling some of the finest Cambodian food.
A popular Khmer folktale is that a celebrated politician called Thun Chey was exiled from the Khmer Empire by the Khmer king who was scared of his power and popularity. In China, he was forced to resort to making a living selling these Khmer noodles! Of course, such a delicious dish quickly gained popularity with the Chinese, until even the Emperor heard about it. Most Cambodians are familiar with the story of Thun Chey, and many will say that this is where China got their own idea for noodle dishes (and subsequently the undeserved glory resulting from Cambodia’s invention). See: Top 5 Chinese Noodle Dishes. It is an interesting notion that Cambodians invented the simple noodle dish!
If you want to try what most Khmers call “the world’s first noodle”, you can find women walking around Phnom Penh in the mornings and early afternoon selling bowls of num banh chok out of baskets hanging off poles balanced on their shoulders, as well as at local markets closer to the Mekong River or at Sisowath Quay. I had tried in vain to find some Khmer Noodles during my time at Sisowath Quay, but I just wasn’t looking in the right place! In Siem Reap, I found an amazing guy selling Khmer Noodles in a small market near Angkor Thom temple. In fact, many of us were sitting eating our noodles and a huge branch broke from the tree above us and fell to the ground close to where we were seated. It’s a dangerous business, eating noodles!