In District 1, just to the northwest of the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district, a sign shouted, "CHÁO ẾCH SINGAPORE!" at me from across the street.
"Singaporean frog porridge?" I said to Julian with a question mark in my voice, like he would know. Frog porridge didn't sound familiar. I thought it was more probable that I was getting my diacriticals mixed up, like always.
But I was pretty sure, at least, that the sign didn't say "hello frog" (chào ếch), so we went in and sat down.
Yep, frog porridge! Or rather, frog hot pot with a bowl of porridge on the side.
Beyond the cliché "it tastes like chicken!" I never heard much of a description of frog meat before I ate it on this trip. I had no idea what to expect.
Allow me to elaborate: it does taste like chicken. It tastes like chicken that's been crossed with eel. And it's slippery and tender and encircled with tiny veins that look like tiny rubber bands holding the meat on the bone.
This particular frog was chopped up and marinated in a thick, syrupy sweet soy sauce that dripped tendrils into the porridge like honey into Cream of Wheat when I mixed the bowls together.
The frogs in Vietnam were relatively unadorned, and retained enough of their original shape, texture and flavor that they were unmistakably frogs. The Cambodian dish, on the contrary, was so heavily stir-fried and coated in all sorts of spices that the meat serving as a vehicle for all that spice was practically irrelevant. Tiny bones flexed and crunched, but that was the only clue.
In a raucous outdoor restaurant that had only beer and Fanta as refreshment options, I ordered something called 'Hot fried with frog', knowing it could be absolutely anything.
Like most of the mystery Cambodian stir fries I had, it came out liberally coated in lemongrass, an assortment of green leaves and herbs, and wildly spicy red chili specks. This was the better frog dish by far. It had a bar wings sort of feel, a carefree application of flavor, made to meld with alcohol. I came very close to wishing I was a drinker.
Instead, we managed to flag down a wandering vendor who was studiously ignoring the table of foreigners and got him to sell me a baggie of hardboiled quail eggs. Dragged through the tamarind sauce Julian had on his boring vegetarian noodles, they were the perfect accompaniment.