The food culture in Cambodia is unique: a combination of numerous influences including from Thailand, Vietnam, China and France. The result is interesting, combining a wide range of spices, sauces and flavors.
The typical Cambodian cuisine mixes different textures and temperatures to give contrasting flavors. A meal usually consists of rice, the country’s staple food, and a choice of meat or fish along with some vegetables. Spices are a must.
Among the most famous dishes are amok, a creamy soup of steamed catfish, and kdam chaa, spiced stir-fried crab. Below you can find a short guide to Cambodian cuisine, what to eat and where.
- Get to know the rich food culture in Cambodia
- Taste a unique combination of flavors coming from all over Southeast Asia
- Enjoy freshwater fish and seafood
- Try amok: the most famous Cambodian meal
- Satisfy your palate with a rich combination of spices, herbs and seasonings
Ingredients of Khmer meals
An average Khmer meal consists of more than one dish. People usually try to use contrasting flavors and temperatures: herbs, pickled vegetables, leaves, and dipping sauces are among the most common ingredients.
Rice, the staple food of the country, is part of every meal: most of the time it’s just a side dish; otherwise, it can be used to make desserts, rice porridge, noodle soup and the like.
Let’s look in more detail at some of the ingredients you will find in your dishes.
Herbs and spices
The most common spice is black pepper, grown in Cambodia since the 13th century. The most famous variety, Kampot pepper, is widely used by chefs worldwide.
The Cardamom Mountains are home to jungle cardamom. Locals use cardamoms as medicine. Turmeric is also grown locally, especially in the Battambang area. It is a common ingredient in curries, soups and other dishes.
Soups like samlar macho make generous use of tamarind, while star anise is a must for caramelized meat. Some other essential spices are ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir lime.
A distinctive feature of Khmer cuisine is fermented sauce, aged for at least one year. There are three main kinds:
- Mam: originating from the Kampuchea Krom area, mam is a general term for fish or seafood fermented with a particular technique. During the process, roasted red sticky rice and palm sugar are added: the result is a sweeter flavor.
- Prahok: prahok is extremely important in Khmer cuisine. It is a fermented fish paste with a pungent flavor. It is prepared in a lot of different ways and it can be eaten as a dish on its own.
- Kapi: this is often mixed with garlic and it’s mostly used as a dipped sauce for grilled meat. It has a rich and salty flavor, ideal for adding to papaya salads.
A lot of Khmer dishes use kroeung: a paste made of finely chopped herbs ground using mortar and pestle. It is like curry paste, and it is usually made with lemon grass, magrut lime, galangal, turmeric, shallots and garlic. It is probably the most distinctive flavor of Khmer cuisine.
Seafood and fish
Fresh fish is common in Cambodian cuisine, since the country has an extensive network of waterways. Dried salted fish, trei ngeat, is widely consumed. Amok, perhaps the most famous dish of the country, is made with steamed catfish.
Common seafood includes clams, cockles, crayfish, shrimps and squid. Lobsters are quite expensive, so they’re mostly eaten by people from the middle-classes around Sihanoukville.
Even if meat is not as common as fish or seafood, it is still widely eaten. Pork and chicken are most popular: pork is used to make sweet sausages called kwah ko; while beef and chicken are mostly stewed, grilled or stir-fried.
Vegetable and fruit
The vegetables used in Khmer cuisine mostly come from China. Soups and stews usually use vegetables like winter melon, bitter melon, luffa and water spinach. Oriental squash is served as a dessert, steamed and sweetened with coconut milk.
Stir-fried dishes use vegetables like cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots and fresh ginger: known under the generic term of chhar.
Fruit is an essential part of the Cambodian diet. It is so popular that it has its own royal court: durian is the “king” and mangosteen the “queen”, while sapodilla is the “prince”. Fruit is commonly used as dessert, but some is also used for salted fish and rice. Smoothies are a big part of the Cambodian night-life.
All the ingredients mentioned above (and many more) make the Cambodian cuisine a must for every traveler. Even if foreign influences are strong, Khmer cuisine has never forgotten its traditional roots.
Here are some delicious dishes recommended for you to try.
- Amok: the most famous Cambodian dish is made of stewed catfish, seasoned with curry and coconut milk. It is usually served in a basket made of banana leaves. When it is cooked properly, the fish is so tender it will melt in your mouth.
- Khmer red curry: this curry is bright red, but is not as spicy as Thai curry. It uses coconut milk, a kind of meat and fresh lemongrass. It is usually served on special occasions such as weddings or family gatherings.
- Kdam chaa: a local specialty in the town of Keb, this stir-fried crab is prepared with greens and Kampot pepper.
Asia Highlights Hand-Picked restaurants
When travelling in Cambodia, it is extremely easy to find non-local food. Cafés, bistros and the like are everywhere. We recommend instead looking for traditional restaurants where you can taste delicious Khmer food. Maybe the best way to do this is to look for “training restaurants”.
“Training restaurants” are an attempt to improve the lives of young locals: they hire only disadvantaged young adults, and teach them some useful working skills. They are characterized by a warm welcome, delicious food and affordable prices.
Tree Alliance Restaurants are probably the most famous training restaurants. Marum, Haven and Romdeng are part of this alliance: they all employ underprivileged teenagers to teach them working skills and give them a better future. All the profits are invested in the students working there, and they take new trainees every year.
Asia Highlights encourages responsible travel: frequenting such restaurants is a perfect way to experience Khmer traditional cuisine and to sustain support for local people.
Water, rice and freshwater fish play an important part in the history of Khmer food. Since the country is characterized by ponds and wetlands, many dishes, such as the samlors, have a pond-like appearance.
Cambodian cuisine has been greatly influenced by many countries: it shares dishes and flavors with the neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, and it borrowed noodles from China. France, which dominated the country for 90 years, is one the biggest influences: baguettes and coffee are everywhere.
Tips for eating
Eating etiquette can be tricky, especially in a foreign country. Here are some tips about Cambodian etiquette:
- Meals are served with shared dishes in the middle of the table.
- Cutlery: Use your fork to push food onto your spoon and don’t put the fork in your mouth. Use a different fork to pick up the food from the shared dishes.
- Slurping and lip-smacking are not frowned upon.
- Used paper and bones go straight onto the floor or into a bin.
- Do not blow your nose at the table.
- Finishing everything on your plate is not perceived as a good thing.
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