Cambodian cuisine may not be as universally popular as the food from neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam, but it’s well worth diving into because there is a whole world of flavours, and delicacies, that are waiting to be tried. Here’s our guide to the dishes you just won’t want to miss.
Holding the crown as Cambodia’s signature dish, this creamy curry is served up in most Khmer restaurants – although you’ll be hard pushed to find it at street-side diners or carts. Freshwater fish traditionally makes up the main ingredient, with some alternatives offering chicken. The fish is diced and smothered in coconut milk, eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar. Kroeung – a paste made from pounded spices and other ingredients, such as turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass and shallots, common in Khmer cooking – is also added. The traditional way to cook fish amok is steaming it in a banana leaf shaped into a bowl, from which it is eaten.
Said to be Cambodia’s second signature plate, beef loc lac is ultimately a beef salad, with a few modern twists added along the way. Today’s version is commonly stir-fried strips of beef served atop crispy lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onion. This is accompanied by French fries and a fried egg is served on top. The best part is the dipping sauce of lime juice and pepper – ideally renowned Kampot pepper to make the tastebuds truly pop.
One of the only ways to start the day is hitting Phnom Penh’s streets just after dawn to join the crowds of Cambodians taking up the pavements to feast on food. At this time, roadsides are full of portable plastic tables and chairs to cater to the crowds wanting breakfast. And the chances are most will be eating pork and rice, or bai sach chrouk – Cambodia’s national breakfast dish. Here, thinly sliced pork is marinated in garlic and oil before being slowly barbecued on a warm grill. It is served over rice with sliced cucumbers and pickled vegetables.
Another quintessentially Cambodian way to start the day is with kuy teav – or noodle soup, although unlike pork and rice, this typical breakfast dish is served throughout the day. Made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli, the flavoursome broth is topped with fried shallots and garlic, bean sprouts, green onions and aromatic herbs. Pork or fish balls are added, with some varieties featuring beef. It is served with sides of chilli paste, half a lime and hoisin sauce.
While crab and pepper can be found across the country, the true place to eat it is at the seaside town of Kep, where crabs are freshly caught before being thrown into the boiling pot. At the lively crab market, visitors can watch women wade into the water to collect the crab baskets that bob in the sea. Crabs are then thrown ashore, before being flogged to the numerous crab shacks that neighbour the market. It is here where you can find the freshest crab and pepper – again, it must be Kampot pepper to enjoy the full flavour.
Forget the super spicy curries of India because Cambodia’s version tends to be much sweeter, milder and more mellow. The authentic version contains chicken, lashings of coconut cream and milk, fish sauce, herbs and diced sweet potatoes, garlic, shallots, turmeric and ginger. The thick, flavoursome and aromatic broth is served with either rice or a French-style crusty baguette to soak up the soup.
Another Cambodian favourite is nom banh chok. This dish is made from thin rice noodles, – made in the provinces daily and sold to markets across the country in the early morning – shredded banana leaves, beansprouts, cucumber, mint and basil. This is topped with green fish curry and is commonly sold by women walking the streets precariously balancing a pole on their shoulders, containing the ingredients on either side.
This refreshing dish is a great way to stave off the midday heat and humidity. Packed full of flavour and colour, each bite of the green mango salad presents a new flavour. Crunchy, zesty, spicy, sweet and sour, it features fresh chilli, fish sauce, sliced green mango, sliced tomatoes and shallots, pickled cucumber, onion, peppers and fresh basil or mint.
Served as a snack, cheik chien – or deep-fried bananas – can be found sizzling away at street food carts across the country. Ripe bananas are flattened and dipped into batter laced with black sesame seeds before being flung into a sizzling pan of oil until perfectly crisp on the outside. Selling for about 2,000 riel (50 cents), this is a great cheap eat to keep afternoon hunger at bay.
Num ansom chek – or rice cake – is one of the most common desserts in Cambodia, and often pulled out during the festivals of Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben. The rice cake is taken to pagodas to give to monks as an offering. They are filled with bananas to sweeten up the flavour before being wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and served.
Another delicious dessert is pumkin custard, or sangkhya lapov. Served after lunch and dinner, the dish is a sweet custard that is stuffed inside a pumpkin before being steamed. The result is a yummy sweet treat that is also impressive on the eye. Sangkhya lapov also puts in an appearance during special occasions.