Morning rush hour in Phnom Penh: cars are jammed tight as Tetris blocks. Motorbikes and scooters carry scruffy construction workers and mouth-masked schoolgirls. Choking on traffic fumes, we pick our way through the jam, past squatting food vendors and hawking tuk-tuk drivers. Inside Tuol Tom Pong (also known as the "Russian Market" due to its popularity among Russian expats in the 1980s and 90s), Chan Neang scratches his head.
"Where is it?" he murmurs and scrabbles through bottles of sweetened soy milk, tea, and charred kettles.
Suddenly, Neang waves the lost coffee filter triumphantly.
"I'm rushed this morning," he explains, tugging at a bag of ground coffee. "Usually my wife makes the coffee, but she couldn't come today so I have to do it alone."
The bag tears and douses his counter in grains. Neang claps a hand to his sweaty brow. When he removes it, a few grains remain stuck to his forehead.
Eventually, Neang produces plastic cups of jet black, iced coffee. The humidity of the climate makes the chilled plastic steam and drip with condensation. It tastes weird. Another sip. It's bad—downright unpalatable, in fact. My translator takes a sip and makes a face. "It tastes like salt," she says.
Cambodia has a number of strange culinary practices, but adding salt to coffee is not one of them. This particular accompaniment is courtesy of Neang and the fluster-inducing absence of his wife.
In Cambodia, thick, strong coffee is brewed and served over ice. As in Vietnam, some Cambodians also add condensed milk.
There are coffee vendors on practically every street corner in Phnom Penh while in the countryside, village coffee shops typically consist of colourful plastic chairs, a crackly TV, and hens gamboling in the dust. A countryside cup costs the equivalent of 16p; in the city, it's closer to 30p.
"I retired from a government position," says Nerm Sophan, who sits with a convivial bunch of older Cambodian men at the popular MC coffee stall in Phnom Penh (the name is an acronym of a sorts, named after the owner—a floppy-hatted woman named Makara). "Now I have lots of free time so I come here to meet friends, talk politics, and read the newspaper."
Makara's 17-year-old daughter plonks several glasses on the table without changing her calm, somewhat sulky expression. The men slurp the last of their brew and pour jasmine tea over the remains. The resulting brown-gold mixture glows in the mid-morning sunlight.
"We put jasmine tea in afterwards," explains Sophan. "The tea cleans the coffee from my mouth and makes me feel refreshed and healthy inside."
Adding jasmine tea (in Cambodia, this can sometimes refer to a jasmine and green tea blend) to coffee dregs sounds like a bad idea. But, like chips and mayonnaise, it somehow works. The men at the MC coffee shack are right: it tastes refreshing after drinking the heavy and intense Robusta blend used by Cambodian street sellers.
According to the online rant of a blogging coffee roaster, Robusta is inferior to the Arabica strain favoured by Starbucks and their imitators. The writer goes so far as to compare it to the taste of "burned tires." Maybe he should try dousing it with jasmine tea.
For the men at MC, they prefer Cambodian coffee, even if it isn't the best-tasting.
"I don't drink Vietnamese coffee," said Bun Thorn, a cheerful, smartly dressed man with droopy spectacles. "Because I heard on Facebook that Vietnamese growers use chemicals that are bad for your health."
Western-style espressos are available in Phnom Penh and other major towns but for many, they are too pricey.
"I like espresso," says Thorn. "But it's more for people who work in offices."
Coffee is grown in the highlands of Mondulkiri in northeast Cambodia. The beans are roasted in either vegetable or pork fat until black. They are then ground into a fine powder.
"There is one company that supplies all the coffee vendors in Phnom Penh's markets," explains Neang, who filters his brew through a cloth stocking.
Back at MC, Makara prefers to use a platoon of extra-large drip-filters. She lines them up on a table beneath a shabby sign showing the stall's WiFi code (how she manages to provide free WiFi at what is essentially a street stall is a mystery). She fills them with water from a charcoal fire-heated vat and as soon as one finishes, she dumps the grains and restarts the process.
Across town at Neang's stall, we sip our replacement coffees, this time served with sugar, not salt. Neang continues banging around, brewing tea, pouring more coffee, and making a hell of a mess.
"I'm sorry about that," he says, mopping his brow. "I don't know what's going on, my wife usually does this."