Brimming with top-notch fish, meat and seafood complemented by an astonishing assortment of aromatic herbs and spices, Cambodian cuisine is in a class of its own. Bring your appetite to the Kingdom of Flavour!
Food is a hot topic in Cambodia and is first and foremost a family affair. Throw open the cupboard of any household kitchen in Cambodia and you’re sure to find fish paste prahok, lemon grass, galangal, garlic, palm sugar, aromatic herbs, leaves and flowers, and kroeung, Cambodia’s signature spice mix, amongst the ingredients on offer.
“Balance is the secret to great Khmer food,” says Cambodia’s most internationally acclaimed chef, Luu Meng, “because every Cambodian ingredient is unique, and each brings an important dimension to the table – whatever the dish.”
Dishes are made according to what’s in season using recipes handed down through generations rather than following standard formulas, culminating in a tremendous diversity of flavours, which top chefs have turned to advantage.
“Every time I go out to the provinces,” says Luu, “I discover a new herb or spice, or twist on an ancient Khmer standard, that surprises me and excites my taste buds.”
So whether it’s fine dining in the capital or a seaside barbeque which takes your fancy, pause a moment to adjust your senses to the aroma extravaganza and riot of colour before you dig in!
A meal in Cambodia typically involves multiple dishes, each including salty, sweet, spicy, and sour notes to satisfy each taste bud. Water, rice and freshwater fish are the central pillars of Khmer cuisine so it’s no surprise that Phnom Penh, which sits at the confluence of three rivers, including the mighty Mekong, and Siem Reap, on the shores of the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, are Meccas for foodies. That said, other hubs lack little in the way of authentic flavours and ingredients, particularly the coastal and riverine cities of Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep where you can sample some of the best spices and seafood in the world.
10 dishes not to be missed
One of the most famous national dishes of Cambodia: a delectable combination of freshwater fish and rich spicy coconut custard. Fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a Khmer curry paste made with pounded lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots, chillies and Chinese ginger are steamed with filleted fish in a banana leaf basket to a firm but moist consistency akin to a French soufflé. Unlike fiery regional versions of the dish, the end product is delightfully aromatic, zesty and full-bodied.
One of the kingdom’s flagship dishes, Lok Lak is a salad like no other. Served hot, it comprises a bed of lettuce, cucumber, and semi-ripened tomatoes crowned with the star of the show: tender pieces of beef marinated in a mixture of palm sugar, garlic, lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper, imparting characteristic salty, sweet and sour notes. After marinating, the beef is quickly seared in a wok and arranged on the plate alongside vegetables and rice over which a thick soy-based sauce is poured, and often topped with a fried egg.
Kampot pepper crab
A crab dish that you’ll never forget. There are different versions of the dish which is most often made using blue swimmer crabs found in Cambodia’s coastal waters, served with a Chinese-style oyster and soy sauce with a touch of palm sugar, imparting a sweet and sour flavour. Meanwhile crisp green Kampot peppercorns are left on the vine and stir fried with the succulent crab, resulting in a tantalising subtle balance of piquant tanginess and sweet fruitiness.
Bai Sach Chrouk (BBQ Pork and rice)
A popular breakfast dish, pork marinated in garlic, palm sugar, soy sauce and coconut milk is slowly char grilled until smoky and caramelised. The meat is then thinly sliced and arranged over a bed of rice with a side of cucumber, green tomatoes and mango, seasoned with scallions and often accompanied with vinegar of ginger, lightly pickled cucumber and daikon radish. Bai Chha, the Khmer version of fried rice, flavoured with garlic, soy sauce and aromatic herbs accompanied by lightly spiced sausages (Twa Ko) and often served in a succulent pineapple is another great rice-based classic.
Num Banh Chao (savory crepe)
Endearingly called “Khmer pizza” by some, this crepe made of coconut milk, rice flour and turmeric, is cooked then filled with ground pork, bean sprouts, purple scallions and more and folded double calzone-style and eaten with assorted vegetables and fish sauce. Variants abound; vegetarian versions are packed with sliced carrot, gourmet mushrooms and tofu. This is one of few Cambodian dishes which is not served with rice.
Khmer red curry
Reserved for special occasions, like weddings, family gatherings and religious holidays like Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, this dish brings together beef, chicken or fish, with eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass and kroeung. Reminiscent of coconut milk-based curries in surrounding countries, this packs a punch in the warm, fragrant flavour department rather than the ardent chilli one! Usually for a dish eaten with a spoon, it is often served with bread rather than rice- a remnant of the French influence on Cambodia’s cuisine culture.
Chhnang Plerng (hotpot)
Translating literally as “firepot”, this is the most common form of hot pot dish in Cambodia and family-style eating at its beat. A stove is placed at the centre of the table above which a clear flavourful broth bubbles away in a pot into which meat, fish, egg, tofu and all manner of vegetables are added to taste by those at the table, to be retrieved with chopsticks when cooked. Small bowls of chopped garlic, chilli and herbs are provided to further season the broth, which is topped up periodically. The grilling of meat over the pot Chhang Phnom Plerng (‘Volcano Hotpot’) adds a uniquely Cambodian twist, with juices secreted from tender cuts adding to the medley of flavours.
Kuy teav (Noodle soup)
Another breakfast classic, this dish is made up of rice noodles lightly coated with garlic-tinged sesame oil, oyster and soy sauce, and a touch of palm sugar. The bowl is then filled with a subtle clear broth made from pork or beef bones, to which slivers of minced pork or pork belly are added, along with wilted lettuce, bean sprouts and fresh herbs. The flavour profile of the broth, imparted by its triumvirate of garlic, lime juice and black Kampot pepper, sets it apart from other noodle soup dishes in the region. Often eaten with deep fried breadsticks, various versions of the dish exist, with Phnom Penh-style Kuy Teav containing the most flavours and flourish, adding Mekong prawns and beef offal to the mix.
Samlor Kako (Traditional soup dish)
Considered one of Cambodia’s national dishes, ‘Samlor’ or “rice soup” is one of many dishes to grace tables at every meal. A vegetable-based soup which reflects produce seasonally available produce, the addition of prahok to Samlor Kako lends the dish its slight salty tang. Samlor machu, on the other hand, is defined by the aromatic, citrusy tartness, of its tamarind, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and lemon basil. Its many versions include samlor machu kroeung (featuring kroeung paste, turmeric, morning glory, coriander, stewed beef ribs and tripe), samlor machu Khmer Krom (featuring tomato, pineapple, catfish, lotus root and holy basil) and samlor machu Siem Reap (containing bamboo shoot and freshwater shrimp).
Kralan (bamboo sticky rice)
Referred to as a cake and nowadays eaten as a snack, it is said that officers from Angkorian times would take kralan as an easy and nourishing meal while on watch. White or black sticky rice is combined with red beans or black-eyed peas, sugar, freshly grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed into lengths of specially prepared bamboo and cooked over charcoal, resulting in a wholesome creamy taste. A few places have become known for making the best kralan: Thma Krae village in Kratie Province, Phnom Toch and Phnom Thom communes off National Highway 5 on the approach to Siem Reap from Battambang and Dam Dek, east of Siem Reap city on National Highway 6, north of Kampong Khleang floating village. Look out for this tasty classic around Chinese New Year (January/February) and Khmer New Year (13-16 April) when it most often made and eaten.