Before I start jabbering about these noodles, I wanted to point out that this picture is crappy because I thought my camera died. The flash refused to work, so that’s why I’ve got a really ugly photo.
In any case, Phnom Penh noodles beat out pho in my books. This dry Cambodian noodle dish packs a wallop of flavour, and they impact your taste buds more than pho. I can only eat one bowl of pho before the spices overwhelm me, but with Phnom Penh noodles, I can eat up to three bowls (plus a bowl of soup)! It’s pretty refreshing for a pork-based noodle dish.
Khmer-speakers call it "Ka Tieu Phnom Penh." In my dialect, Teochew, it’s called “Geem Tak Goo-ui Dee-ow,” with Geem Tak translating as Phnom Penh (capital city of Cambodia). In Vietnamese, it’s known as “Hủ tiếu Nam Vang,” where Nam Vang is Phnom Penh.
Side note: my family was part of the Chinese diaspora in Cambodia, which is why we eat such a wide variety of foods.
Phnom Penh noodles normally come in two parts. First, a bowl of dry noodles, pictured here. The noodles are dressed in oyster sauce, dark soy sauce (for colour), fried garlic oil, green onions, and cilantro. That’s the basic flavouring. Then you can add pretty much whatever toppings you want. Minced pork and dried shrimp, shrimp, crab meat, sliced pork meat and organs, sliced chicken, bean sprouts, whatever! Here, I’ve got pork balls, fake crab meat, and minced pork and dried shrimp.
Christine's comments: In addition to the oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, fried garlic oil (with a bit of the fried garlic bits), green onions and cilantro, I like to add hoisin sauce to sweeten the noodles up a bit and a bit of broth to loosen up the noodles.
The second part (not pictured in this post) is a bowl of soup. Normally, it’s a super clear, super rich pork soup topped with your choice of meats and garnished with the requisite fried garlic oil, green onions, and cilantro. At a restaurant, these two parts are served together, but I like having a bowl of dry noodles followed by soup noodles.
Though the soup is normally made with just pork, I like to add a chicken leg or two to round out the flavour. My recipe is fairly simple. Boil water, toss in pork and chicken bones, sprinkle liberally with salt, turn heat to medium, boil for ten minutes, skim off scum, add half an onion and one carrot, turn heat down to a slow simmer, add a teaspoon of dried shrimp and two teaspoons of fish sauce, and simmer until the smell makes your mouth water and the soup is clear and tinged with yellow (about three hours). The soup is packed with flavour from the rich pork and chicken, the sweet onion and carrot, and mildly stinky from the fish sauce and dried shrimp.
I use leftover pork bones to make my soup. Sometimes, a picnic roast comes with bone-in, so I cut out the bone, leaving a little bit of meat on it, and toss it in the freezer for times when I want to make Phnom Penh noodles. Other times, I get a package of pork neck bones or some other cheap scraps at the grocery store. This only sets me back around $3 per package, which is a great deal.
On the Food Network, the hosts stress simplicity and cooking to showcase one flavour. This is good advice for people who are just learning to cook, but I think harmony should be the key concept.
Take a look at this non-recipe. There are about a dozen different ingredients going into the dish, but they all work together to form the right flavour. If you’ve mixed your noodles properly, you end up with Phnom Penh noodles as a whole, and not just noodles with sauces and garnishes. The ingredients don’t overpower each other.
So keep this principle in mind if you attempt this dish, or even if you’re just going out to eat these noodles. The different elements should be in perfect harmony with each other.
I don't mind the "dry" version of this dish, but I'd much rather have a bowl of Phnom Penh noodles with soup. You can order hu tieu Nam Vang at pho restaurants, however, the soup is usually too sweet and lacking the rich-tasting soup.