The Village Report — Breakfast in Cambodia

Dipika Kohli

By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly

Little fish, a pooling of about 30, butt about in their prism while my son looks on, mesmerized, chewing a bit of salty fish head. On the far side of the tank, someone has painted spindly leaves, stones, a castle, and a starfish. Akira, the other member of our trio, is staring at the mural with as much curiosity as our kid. Knowing someone for 20 years means knowing in your mind what they’re going to say before they say it. “You gotta wonder if that faux ocean makes the fish more cozy.”<!–more–>

It’s 7:30 in the morning and this is breakfast — salty fish, soy sauce, and bland white rice porridge. Now a police officer (possibly a security guard) joins our table. The place is one of the many nameless family operations that pop up for breakfast each day. This is the part of Phnom Penh known amongst the Japanese expats as “Kizuna Street.”

Bits of napkin clutter the ground and a dog comes by every so often to get at whatever you can’t. A lady in a red hat shoos this creature away, but not before it gets so close to your leg that you have to wonder if you’re up-to-date on rabies vaccines. Teensy panic, but then the street floods with color and life and you get swept up in the scene.

Occidental Street is where I used to go for people watching in Seattle, and even though I’m in Cambodia now, I still love to look and watch. The artist Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “The street can be observed through the windowpane, which diminishes its sounds so that its movements become phantom-like. The street itself, as seen through the transparent (yet hard and firm) pane seems set apart, existing and pulsating as if beyond. As soon as we open the door, step out of the seclusion and plunge into the outside reality, we become an active part of this reality and experience its pulsation with all our senses.”

I almost wish I had kept going down the street, but this place seemed popular. If loads of people are there, you know they rotate out the vegetables and meats. That means it’s probably safe.

In our small family’s usual tradition, the person who picks the place does the ordering, so I’d pointed to a plate without looking too closely and made a gesture. “That,” I said. “Three.” Here comes a pile of New Khmer food, because I’m so adventurous and all, and wow, really? This?

Fish, whole, with their heads still on.

Kush reaches for his plate with bare fingers, lifts one, and pushes it into his tiny mouth. “Mmm. Good.”

“You’re eating that?” I ask.

“Yeah. I’m hungry.”

I’m hungry, too. Akira is watching and I am immediately transported back in time to Hachioji, 1995, when we were visiting his parents’ house in Tokyo. Fish appeared on the table with the heads. “Um,” I remember saying, “I’m not hungry.”

Years later, we’re in Cambodia with our kid and he’s the one who’s going to go for it, and he’s only 5. Akira and I look at each other, with that glow you see between parents sometimes. I can’t believe he just ate that fish head, I say with my eyes. Pretty cool, isn’t it, he replies with his, and we slowly reach for our share.

It’s salty, like the ocean, but not bad. I copy Kush. “Mmm,” I say. “You know what? This is pretty good!”

Porridge comes, along with soy sauce, small plates, bits of napkin, teeny forks, and chopsticks. We perform the ritual of wiping utensils with squares of tabletop toilet paper encased in plastic dispensers before partaking of the food, the scraps of garbage strewn beneath.

It’s not even 9 o’clock and the street is already full of motorbikes, cycles, older people pushing carts, cars, and “tuk-tuks,” the colorful, open-air, step-up carriages hitched to motorbikes. They’re the most beautifully designed (rigid, classic) and fun-to-ride vehicles that I’ve seen so far in Asia, and that includes taxis and rickshaws, cyclos and minivans, buses that work and ones that break down every couple of hours, too, in Vietnam and Laos, Thailand, India, and Nepal.

“Tuk-tuk?” the Phnom Penh drivers ask us, in earnest.

But we live just down the street. A gentle shaking of the head and the drivers are on their way.

“Careful,” I say to Kush. “Hold my hand.” (end)

Dipika Kohli writes Kismuth (

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