The Khmer (Cambodian) culture has mastered the use of herbs like lemongrass, coriander, and basil to create flavors that are immensely well balanced and are suited for dishes with or without meat. The use of such herbs helps preserve the freshness of the other ingredients.
Cambodian cuisine isn’t really spicy, since it was actually established much before the widespread use of chili. Each Khmer (Cambodian) meal usually includes a sweet, a sour, a salty, and a bitter sauce, to satisfy each taste bud.
In an effort to narrow down the huge list of popular Khmer dishes, and to help you know which ones you should try on your next visit to Cambodia, we’ve come up with this guide for you.
What is Khmer food like?
Khmer food is often all about contrasts — sweet and sour, salty and bitter, fresh and cooked. By blending subtle flavors and spices, Khmer cuisine sets itself apart from the many other styles of food in Southeast Asia.
It is similar to Thai cuisine but is distinctive by way of creating full flavor without the use of chili, due to Khmer cuisine actually being established before the widespread use of chili.
Freshwater fish plays a big role in Khmer cuisine due to its rich abundance in the area. Cambodia has two main sources of natural fresh water, the Mekong River, and the Tonle Sap, and these provide huge breeding grounds for fish.
Recipes involving fish range anywhere from deep-fried, steamed, or even dry.
Seafood includes an array of shellfish such as clams, cockles, crayfish, shrimp, and squid. Lobsters are not as common due to their high price, but middle-class and wealthy Cambodians enjoy eating them in coastal cities like Sihanoukville.
Curries and soups
TStir-frying from the Chinese culture and curry dishes from India have all added to the taste of Khmer cuisine throughout the centuries.
Curries are a common part of Khmer food, but they're typically less spicy than those found in neighboring Thailand.
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Fruit in Cambodia is so popular that it has its own royal court. Durian is considered the "king," mangosteen the "queen," sapodilla the "prince," and milk fruit the "princess."
Other popular kinds of fruit include pineapple, star apple, coconut, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, mango, and rambutan.
Although fruit is usually considered dessert, some, like ripe mangoes, watermelon, and pineapples, are often consumed with salted fish and plain rice.
Popular Cambodia dishes
While there are simply too many mouthwatering dishes to try in the Kingdom of Wonders, we've drawn a list of some of our absolute favorite Cambodian dishes for you to try below:
Fish Amok isn't just one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes, it's also the "national dish" of the country!
Fish Amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk, and a rich and creamy kroeung (a type of Khmer curry paste made of lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, shallots, galangal, and Chinese ginger).
When cooked correctly, the fish is silky smooth, almost melting in your mouth with each bite. It is usually wrapped in a banana leaf and isn't too spicy.
Traditionally, Amok is always made using fish. If you are offered chicken, beef, or vegetarian Amok options, the restaurant is trying to appeal to tourists, and not following the traditional recipe.
Cha Kny'ey is a deliciously fragrant Khmer dish of stir-fried chicken, using lots of ginger, black pepper, and a small amount of chili.
The reason this ginger and chicken stir-fry is so popular is Cambodia isn't just because it's flavorful, but also because the generous amount of ginger is actually good for the body.
Nom Banh Chok
Nom Banh Chok – better known to visitors as “Khmer noodles” – is a classic Cambodian breakfast food.
The dish is made of rice noodles, topped with a green fish curry made of lemongrass, turmeric root, and kaffir lime. Fresh mint leaves, green beans, banana flower, pickled bean sprouts, and other greens are also added to the mix.
There’s a red curry version of this dish as well but that’s usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities.
K'damm Mrek Kep
K'damm Mrek Kep, or the Kep pepper crab, is a hugely popular dish in Cambodia, made of soft-shell crab and green peppercorns in a garlic-flavored sauce.
Fried crab is a specialty of the Cambodian coastal town of Kep, and the locally grown kampot pepper is famous all over the world. When prepared together, the result is a flavorful dish unlike any other.
While the kampot pepper is available in other parts of the world, the pepper's immature variant is available only in Cambodia and gives the pepper crab a taste that's different than what one would get upon preparing the crab with dried peppercorns.
Bai Sach Chrouk
Bai Sach Chrouk (Grilled pork with rice) is a simple yet immensely popular dish in Cambodia. Consisting of grilled pork, marinated beforehand in garlic and coconut milk, served with rice in a clear meat broth. This dish can be found in any part of Cambodia. So much so that you can find it on menus in tiny, hole-in-the-wall joints, as well as in fancier, upmarket, restaurants.
While it’s common to have Bai Sach Chrouk with just rice and fresh vegetables, many do enjoy it with a side of fish balls as well. We’d recommend complementing this tasty treat with a cup of iced coffee!
Bok L'hong Salad
Bok L'hong salad mixes grated, raw papaya, basil, and peanuts to create a sweet, sour, and spicy salad, popular in Cambodia. Different versions are also eaten in Thailand and Laos.
Dried shrimp and tomatoes are often also added to the salad.
Lok Lak (or stir-fried beef or pork in brown sauce) is a traditional Khmer dish in which thin beef or pork slices are stir-fried in a light brown sauce, before being served with rice, and a side of salad and pepper sauce.
For those of you that love spicy food, Lap Khmer (lime-marinated Khmer beef salad) is the Cambodian dish you've been looking for.
Thin slices of beef are marinated in lime juice with lots of shallots, fish sauce, basil, mint, and bell peppers, and then topped with lots (we mean, lots!) of chilies.
You should be warned, though: If you're not into spicy food, this dish probably isn't for you as it almost always comes with a kick!