Posted by: adventuressetravels | May 22, 2012

Sunflower Seeds Khmer Style

The street food in Cambodia is not up to its neighboring countries of Vietnam and Thailand, but they do have some interesting dishes.  One of the most surprising is liah.

I had seen the huge flat-bedded carts heaped with tiny little shells parked everywhere in Phnom Penh from when I first arrived, but I was dubious at best.  I’m by no means opposed to eating street food with wild abandon.  Never the less, eating shellfish that had been sitting out in the hot sun all day sounded like welcoming food poisoning with open arms.

Much as I love trying new things, experiencing a culture’s cuisine, and as big a fan of seafood as I am, I was not at the top of my to-do list in Phnom Penh.

Then, one day Sothea, a Khmer girl I know, invited me to have lunch with her and some of her friends.   One of them broke out a little plastic bag of the little shells.  Curiosity won the best of me.  After all, I couldn’t very well refuse being taught how to eat the traditional Khmer snack little shellfish snack food.


The girls told me that the crustaceans were actually baby fresh water clams known as Liah.  The girls had a variety of flavors:  one bag contained shells coated with spicy seasoning, others with a salt-mixture.

But how did you eat the tightly sealed tiny little shells?  We clearly didn’t have special liah-shelling devices.  I watched astounded as the girls, seemingly by magic, pried the shells open.  These were the Khmer’s sunflower seeds!

The girls started to break open shells and hand them to me.  Amazingly, sitting out in 100+ degree weather all day didn’t hurt the clams one bit and they were extremely tasty.  It was great of them to do the shelling for me, but I was determined to learn myself.

They did their best to teach me their magic otter-like ways, showing the easiest method of cracking the shells open with their front teeth.  I balked at this, not really having any desire to chip a tooth in an inexpert attempt at prying open a clam.

The girls relented and showed me another technique, one where you squeezed both sides of the shell between your thumb and forefinger as hard as you could.  This caused the baby clam to open slightly, at which point one could stick their fingernail in the crack between shell halves and pry the thing open to access the sweet meat inside.

Though I did get a few open myself, the knack eluded me.  I guess one day of guerilla-training can’t begin to measure up to years of practice.

Interestingly, though liah is delicious on the hot streets of Cambodia, if you refrigerate them for a few hours then they don’t taste nearly as good.  I am not entirely sure if that is because they are still cooking on the street and they just aren’t fresh, but that’s my hypothesis.

Though eating shellfish that has been sitting out in the hot sun all day may seem sketchy, I can give liah my thumbs up.  It is definitely worth trying Cambodia’s sunflower seeds.



  1. Cambodia would be heaven for Mary Ann McCarthy, who “went digging for some clams / And all she found were oysters.”

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