While not as well-known as that of neighboring Thailand, Cambodia has a complex, flavorful and ethnically diverse cuisine. Drawing upon centuries of influence from Indian traders—who settled in the region in the 6th century, French colonialists, Chinese migrants and Vietnamese occupiers, Cambodian cuisine is a melding of indigenous plants and animals with classical European technique.
A Guide to Cambodian Cuisine
As with most of Asia, rice is the dietary staple, consumed at all meals. The Mekong River provides ideal growing conditions, as well as plentiful freshwater fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, and edible plants that are also key components of Cambodian cookery. Equally important are spice pastes (kroeung), fermented fish paste (prahok), which adds a salty/savory component, palm sugar (khaw), and a wide variety of herbs. Like other Southeast Asian cuisines, Cambodian food is a balance of sweet, bitter, sour and salty flavors, although it’s markedly less spicy than Thai and Laotian food.
To fully experience Cambodian food means checking your squeamishness at the door. In addition to all manner of offal, rodents, insects and arthropods are a part of the diet, from the countryside to the capital of Phnom Penh. The latter are generally consumed as snacks, but you’ll also find them as the protein component in main dishes.
Tamarind, shallots, palm sugar, garlic, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, star anise, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (which grows wild in the mountain range of the same name, in the southwest part of Cambodia), mint, sweet basil, kaffir lime and leaves, cilantro, ma-om (rice paddy herb), and other wild plants play a starring role in Cambodian cuisine, lending a complexity that is the hallmark of dishes like amok (see below), samlar machu (a category of sour soups flavored with prahok and tamarind), and a variety of curries. Kampot black pepper is world-renowned and in 2008 became one of a few Asian ingredients to receive Protected Geographical Indication status.
Meat and Seafood
Beef curry, insects, pork, duck, offal: Cambodians love meat, although it’s considered a luxury ingredient. Try classic dishes like bai sach chrouk (grilled, coconut milk-marinated pork served over rice), chicken amok, or lap Khmer—thinly sliced or chopped beef marinated in a fragrant blend of herbs and spices and lime juice (the acid of which “cooks” the meat). Amok—baked, flaked freshwater fish with lemongrass, chili, and coconut—is the national dish. Kampot pepper crab, (the nearby seaside resort of Kep is famed for its crab market), and all manner of fresh- and saltwater crustaceans and mollusks are a major part of the diet. Don’t miss Cambodia’s many outdoor hotpot-style eateries, where you choose your seafood and have it cooked to order.
Fruits and Vegetables
From mangoes, durian, jackfruit, dragonfruit, mangosteen, bananas, and lychees to fresh young coconut juice (and every other kind of juice or shake you can think of), fruit is a key component of the Cambodian diet—in part because it provides much-needed refreshment and electrolytes that offset the heat and humidity. You’ll see street carts, market vendors and shops selling whatever is in season; take advantage and experience them all. Note that while tourist destinations and larger cities can reliably be counted upon to use purified ice and water for shakes, you should avoid purchasing beverages that use these ingredients in rural areas. Green papaya salad (bok lahong), bitter melon, squash, yardlong beans, water spinach, herbs, wild greens and more. Cambodian markets abound with a kaleidoscope of produce, much of which can’t be found in the West.
Rice, Noodles and Pastries
Ethnic Chinese have inhabited Cambodia for since the 13th century, and have had considerable influence on the cuisine. Dumplings, steamed buns, noodles (usually made from rice flour) are all beloved snacks, while babor (congee, or rice porridge) is a breakfast standard. The French introduced baguettes to the culinary culture, hence the Cambodian love of freshly baked bread with butter or pâté, and pâté sandwiches garnished with condiments, herbs, pickles, and vegetables—the Khmer version of Vietnamese banh mi. There are also divine pastries, often filled with sweetened bean paste.
Don’t deprive yourself of Cambodian street food. It’s an important part of the social fabric, which is intrinsically linked to eating. Try nom pao (steamed, seasoned pork buns similar to Chinese bao), sugar cane juice, Khmer coffee (iced or hot, it’s mixed with condensed milk and utterly addictive; thank the French), stir-fried noodles, fruit shakes, grilled meats and seafood… or even fried insects.