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Phnom Penh’s Best Breakfast Comes From a Stall Next to a Sewer

Vanna has been serving babaw—a Cambodian rice porridge similar to congee—in a stall next to Phnom Penh’s infamous Lu Tuk S'Oi, or ‘bad smelling water’ for eight years.
All photos by Jeremiah Overman.

Even in the early morning, the air in Phnom Penh is thick and hot. As the low-angled sun casts a merciless glare on the low-rise city, rush hour is beginning. Motorbikes stampede down pot-holed streets alongside elephantine four-wheel drives and the occasional roaring Humvee. Roadsides teem with vendors poking at portable charcoal burners, stirring steaming vats of soup, and tossing vegetables in frying pans.


A favourite here is Cambodian rice porridge. Known locally as babaw, it's a tasty, meaty soup made from rice and water. Cambodians eat it at any time of day but usually for breakfast. Every morning fires are lit everywhere from restaurants to ramshackle roadside eateries to heat large vats of babaw to fuel the capital's workers.

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Vanna is a breakfast vendor. "I learned to cook babaw from my mother," she says while simultaneously chopping pork, dicing vegetables, and ladling out steaming bowls of soup. Her hands move in a blur, everything practiced to perfection over 15 years. "My mother learned from her mother and so on."


The Phnom Penh stall where Vanna and her husband sell Babaw.Lu Tuk S'Oi

Vanna and husband Soern started selling street food in Poipet, a town on the border with Thailand, before moving to Phnom Penh eight years ago so their children could attend school. "I'm a simple person; I can't imagine my work is very interesting," she says.

Vanna also sells noodle soup and fried pork served with rice and pickles—the Cambodian equivalent of a bacon sandwich. Her stall is next to (literally, "bad-smelling sewer water"), a combination sewer and storm drain; one of Phnom Penh's more malodorous landmarks. "It is a concern to make food next to the sewer," she says. "I don't know what my customers think."


Vanna rises every morning at 3:30 AM to make babaw. "First, I cook the rice and wash it with cold water," she says. "Then I fry the rice in oil and [in a separate pot] boil water and pork rinds; when the water boils I add fish sauce, dried shrimp, sugar, and the fried rice." She makes the dish fresh every morning, stirring every ten minutes to make sure the rice softens. It's ready to serve after 45 minutes.


By 7 AM, a line of battered mopeds edges Vanna's shop. Behind the counter, a crackly TV barks the day's news. The old metal tables and plastic chairs are full. Some people eat with friends while others sit in silence staring into the middle distance. Bowl after bowl of babaw comes before Vanna. She drops in cubes of coagulated pork blood, a slice of liver, and a few chunks of pork; then garnishes with bean sprouts, coriander, and dried onion. Soern and a few hired girls help them serve up. "I'm happy my husband helps," she says and smiles.


At the equivalent of 34p per bowl, Vanna's


is at the cheaper end of the market. Restaurants like 33 in Phnom Penh's riverside district cater to a middle class clientele and charge three times as much for their version, with its thick strips of chicken breast. NGO-favourite,

Smile Restaurant

in Kampong Cham has a version with barbequed pork and fresh duck eggs for £1.68.


is nothing if not customisable.


Origins of this stalwart of the Cambodian diet are sketchy. Speculation is that babaw and other Southeast Asian variations evolved from Chinese congee which was introduced into Southeast Asia by Chinese immigrants who have been settling there throughout recorded history. A professor from the Royal University of Phnom Penh tells MUNCHIES that babaw probably evolved from the rice soup eaten by Chinese immigrants who settled in the kingdom during the 13th century but was unwilling to go on record because "no-one is actually sure."


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During the Khmer Rouge regime—the hyper-Maoist monstrosity responsible for the deaths of two million Cambodians in the late 1970s—babaw was all people were allowed to eat. According to a report in The Phnom Penh Post, it was used during food shortages as a way of making meagre rice rations go further. In a recent book on the subject, survivor Someth Chey told the author, "One pot of rice porridge was shared between 100 people and one person only received half a ladle."


Today, there is a dynamism in Cambodia; a sense of determination to move away from the Khmer Rouge and subsequent civil war and claim their piece of the Asian development bonanza. The country's increasing affluence had led to an explosion of quality restaurants in Phnom Penh. But for many, you can't beat a humble bowl of babaw.

"I eat babaw every day," says Yoem Rada, a patron of Vanna's eatery. "Tell your readers to try it with pepper and fresh lime juice—it gives it a great tang."