A Breakfast Soup That Demands Your Undivided Attention
Kuy Teav in Cambodia
When the soup arrived, I knew that I’d made the right call getting the seafood in my kuy teav.
The shrimp bulged, looking as though they’d erupted. The squid was pearly white and regal purple. I could already tell they would be chewy without being gummy, fishy without being… too fishy. The were swimming with handfuls of green onion, shallots, bean sprouts, and aromatic herbs.
Below the surface of the foggy brown broth, clumps of thin rice noodles waited to be unearthed between my chopsticks. An accompanying platter of donut-like breadsticks, for dunking, completed the scene. It looked good.
I was at a roadside restaurant in the dusty, sleepy town of Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city. Battambang has carved out a role as an unassuming stop for tourists looking for a break between Angkor Wat and the coast.
The day was already warm as I sat among Battambang’s morning workers and eaters, shoveling different combinations of noodle, seafood, broth, and garnishes onto my spoon. The only thing that stopped us was taking the time to pour more hot tea.
This Cambodian noodle soup—made with rice noodles and pork broth—is primarily a breakfast dish, different from Vietnamese pho for being a little sweeter. It’s little like Battambang itself; nothing fancy, and it’s up to you what you make of it. For me, that meant raiding the bowls on the table to pile in hot, sweet, pickled green chilies, and splashes of fish sauce and vinegar. I added a tiny spoonful of sugar as well, since that seemed to be the thing to do.
Some of my soup ingredients probably came from the freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, an important food source for the region and a short boat ride from Battambang. But it’s producing smaller and smaller hauls of seafood every year, thanks to to climate change (including longer hot seasons), overdevelopment, and illegal fishing. The meat versions of the soup—with beef or minced pork—are fine, but nothing says Cambodia like fish from Tonle Sap.
Kuy teav demands your undivided attention in a way that only a breakfast made mostly from broth and slippery accoutrements can—not least, to prevent your shirt getting wet. Soon, I was scooping out flecks of garlic and noodle with my spoon, scraping ceramic. The bowl empty, my forehead glistening, my nose running, my stomach full, I spent the next few minutes polishing off cup after cup of tea, satisfied with my discovery.
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