“A typical Cambodian meal would normally consist of a soup, a salad, a main fish dish, vegetables and rice. A Cambodian dessert, normally based on fresh fruits and sticky rice, complement the meal.” – His Majesty, former king Norodom Sihanouk
Often unfairly labelled as being akin to Thai food without the spice, Cambodian cuisine is unique in that it has been shaped by a succession of international culinary powerhouses. The influence of India, Vietnam, China, Thailand, France and even Java has contributed to possibly the most diverse menu found anywhere in Southeast Asia, and the country remains mercifully spared from Western fast-food chains.
Indian influences can be seen in the wide range of subtly-spiced curries such as laksa and the modern Cambodian signature dish amok, while Chinese tastes are evidenced by the staples of fried rice and fried noodles. The French brought pastries and a fondness for tender meats, while the Vietnamese introduced rice paper spring rolls and the delicate lok lak.
The incredible richness of the country’s waterways, from the Mekong and Tonle Sap to the Gulf of Thailand, mean fish is both popular and cheap. Chicken, pork, duck and beef are all common but more expensive. For the average Khmer, a cow is well beyond their budget.
Cambodians are omnivorous, and eat mainly for sustenance or celebration rather than the subtleties of taste. Khmers find nothing unusual about eating insects, rodents, snakes, weeds or offal. If it provides nutrition, it is good – a legacy borne from years of famine and hunger. Intrepid visitors can sample such delights as pong tea kon (fertilised duck egg with embryo) or, the notorious Skuon spiders (deep fried tarantula).
Khmer kitchens and customs
Preparation and fresh ingredients define Khmer cooking. The best meals are based on simplicity, and the Cambodian kitchen consists of little more than a mortar and pestle, a large pot or wok, a sharp knife, a strong flame and clean water. Gas is the most reliable energy source, and ovens are a rarity.
Cambodians are also fond of grilling, with makeshift barbeques a simple way to cook food on the street. Many dishes are trey, grilled, with trey aing (grilled fish) a favourite. The special taste of indigenous Khmer food comes from its extensive use of prahok, a fermented fish paste used both as an ingredient and as a condiment.
In times gone by, food was eaten by hand, but most common is now the fork and spoon combination or chopsticks, or both. Meals are eaten as they are prepared, and there is no such thing as courses to Khmers. Communal feasts place dishes on a central table where diners help themselves, generally with their own small serving bowl into which rice is heaped and small portions added. In the home, hosts are expected to offer more food than can be eaten, while guests are expected not to eat everything.
Staple foods in Cambodia
The main staple is naturally rice, with the Khmer phrase for eating, nam bai, translated as ‘eat rice’. Noodles are the second staple and come in all shapes and sizes. The French legacy also sees Cambodians eat more bread than their Asian neighbours, and baguettes with pâté (or its rural replacement, spam) are found nationwide.
Most Cambodian meals are accompanied by a soup, the most popular beingsomlar machou banle (sour fish soup), somlar chapek (pork soup with ginger) and mon sngor (chicken and coriander soup). Typically, noodle soup is eaten for breakfast, with Num banh choc (rice noodle and fish soup) and borbor (rice porridge) also popular. Desserts are predominantly fresh fruit, although night markets offer sweet-milk drizzled baguettes and ice cream sandwiches.
Cambodia is renowned for its abundance of fresh and exotic fruit. Found year-round, fruit is cheap and healthy, with traditional favourites including banana, mango, coconut, pineapple an watermelon joined by more Asian specialties such as rambutan, durian, starfruit, mangosteen, dragon fruit and lychee. Fruit stands sit on most street corners, churning out tukalok (fruit shakes) that can be had with egg-white or sweet milk.
Vegetables are limited by the nature of the land, with most being green leafed or from the vine. Cucumber and tomato are essential to most dishes, while carrots, beans, spinach and lettuce can also be found. Cambodians are not vegetarian by nature, though such travellers have ample selection available.
Signature Khmer dishes
Amok Curry: Mainly fish or chicken, using red curry paste, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and chilli to create a subtle yet thick broth that has become the national dish.
Laksa: A local version of the Malaysian icon, using thin rice noodles in a red curry soup, with added bean sprouts, cucumber, mint and chilli.
Lok lak: Stir fried, marinated beef cubes on a tomato and cucumber salad bed, topped with a fried egg and lime-pepper sauce.
Phlea Siat Kow: Beef and vegetable salad made from cabbage, tomato, carrot, red onion and thinly sliced beef, topped with lemongrass, coriander and mint.
Saik Moan Char Trob: Stir fried chicken and eggplant. The eggplant is charcoal-grilled and combined seasoned chicken fillet to produce a smoky flavour.
Sieng Khtih: Fermented soy bean dip, served with fresh vegetables.
Num Chak: Sticky rice and coconut grilled in Chak or banana leaf