Cambodia’s compact size means dishes are available nationwide and not necessarily isolated to one area, making it a foodies’ haven. With so many dishes to try — from the flavoursome to the weird and wonderful — here are some of the best places to sample truly authentic Cambodian cuisine.
Cambodia is awash with kuy teav every morning, with the majority of Cambodians starting their day with a helping of the pork broth-based rice noodle soup. The signature breakfast dish is served with garnishes of lettuce, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, coriander, black pepper, lime juice and caramelised garlic oil. The capital of Phnom Penh is the home of another version, which is the most extravagant of the range of options. Here, the soup comes loaded with extra nutritious ingredients, such as pork blood, chopped pork intestine, heart, liver and lung, roasted duck, Mekong river prawns, fish cake and squid.
The capital of Kandal Province is famous for its take on the popular breakfast meal — kuy teav kat, or fresh flat rice noodles. Similar to the Chinese dish cheong fun, a rice mixture is steamed before mince pork is added. This is then rolled up and cut into small pieces, which are served alongside a range of vegetables, spring rolls, fish sauce and pork.
Another national favourite comes in the form of nom banh chok, or Khmer noodles — a rice noodle dish that is served with fish broth or chicken curry, cucumbers, bean sprouts, banana blossom flowers, water lily stems, basil and mint. While it’s typically a breakfast dish, it’s also eaten as an afternoon snack, with women flogging bowls of it served fresh on the street from buckets hanging off poles balancing on their shoulders. Prevalent throughout the country, the noodles are laboriously made in the provinces by hand with regional variations available. For example, in Kampot, the dish includes locally-produced sweet dried shrimp, coconut cream and peanuts. In Siem Reap, more garlic and coconut milk is used. A good spot to sample nom banh chok is at Preah Dak village in the Banteay Srei District of Siem Reap. Here, you’ll find a whole street with stalls serving up the authentic local dish.
At 3am daily, the day starts for Kratie’s swathe of sticky bamboo rice makers as they set to work on creating the popular savoury snack that is devoured across the country. By 6am, vendors line the province’s roads, selling the cylindrical bamboo cones to middle-men, who sell them to the markets. Kralan is a common sight throughout Cambodia and is made of sticky rice and red beans soaked in coconut milk before being stuffed in bamboo. The bamboo is then cooked over a charcoal or wood fire for several hours before the sticky and sweet snack is ready to be served. This snack is commonly sold on the streets and at markets.
Kep is famous countrywide for its fresh seafood, thanks to the coastal town’s crab market, which is a hive of activity throughout the day, as fishermen offload their catches and women wade into the shallow waters to check their crab baskets. Naturally, the town is home to some of the country’s finest crab shacks and seafood restaurants, all serving the town’s iconic dish — stir-fried crab, served with neighbouring Kampot’s signature pepper: fiery Kampot pepper.
Arachnophobes out there might want to give this popular Cambodian snack a miss because you read that right — deep-fried tarantula. Cambodians love treating themselves to a crunchy eight-legged friend, regardless of the time of the day. While street sellers can be found flogging them across Cambodia, Skun is where the majority of the critters hail from. This small town in between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is where locals head into the jungle to catch the spiders and defang them with their bare hands, before selling them as deep-fried dishes, usually eaten with chopped chillies and garlic. Yum.
Kampot’s fertile soil not only makes it the prime spot for growing pepper, but also durian. In fact, Kampot is so proud of its durian production, a roundabout featuring this giant fruit is the town’s focal point. As the Marmite of fruit — you either love it or hate it — durian has a bad rap among Westerners, thanks to its putrid stink. In fact, some hotels and bus companies have banned it from their premises because it smells so bad. Regardless of whether you like it, it’s a popular fruit across Southeast Asia, and it is pretty pricey too.
Where to try it: Follow your nose around any market to stumble across the fruit.