Cambodia shares borders in the north with Laos and Thailand, in the east with Vietnam and in the southwest with the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodians, like most Asians, eat in “family style”. Western tradition has us eating in courses – soups, salads, appetisers, entrees and so on – but Cambodians prefer to have all their food served at once, in the centre of the table, for all to share.
While Cambodians enjoy much of their food spicy, they often do not prepare it that way. Rather, they prefer to have a small side of fish sauce and a few slices of fresh chillies.
Many of the dishes on a Cambodian menu feature Tuk Trey which literally, means ‘fish water’. But it is so much more than just fish sauce. Tuk trey, as a finished product in the Cambodian kitchen, is fundamentally fish sauce combined with lime juice, garlic, salt, sugar and water. Variations can include crushed peanuts, pineapple, chillies, shredded carrots and much more.
Cambodian cuisine draws from the great civilisations of China and India and is also influenced by neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand. There are also traces of French inspiration from the time when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. Baguette or the long French bread, for instance, has come to be Cambodia’s national bread and it is common to find sandwiches made from baguette in Cambodia.
The Chinese left the legacy of stir-frying; while curry dishes that employ dried spices such as star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and fennel were borrowed from the Indians and given a distinctive Cambodian twist with the addition of local ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and galangal. When blended together, the resulting paste is called a Kroeung and is used widely in Cambodian cooking. Coconut is also a popular ingredient in Cambodian curries.
Spring rolls made from rice paper are a popular snack in Cambodia where they are usually stuffed with fresh vegetables including carrots, lettuce leaves, beansprouts and all sorts of herbs like mint leaves, Asian basil, cilantro and spring onions (scallions).
Just as in Thailand and Laos, fermented fish paste, or pra hoc in local parlance, is a popular ingredient and adds a unique flavour to Cambodian cooking. The country is rich with both freshwater and saltwater fish, both of which are plentiful in Cambodia with its rich network of waterways and ocean, including the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap Lake and the Gulf of Thailand. It is no wonder then that, just as in Laos, fish forms the main source of protein for the Cambodians.
Rice is the staple diet in Cambodia and as with all the Southeast Asian cuisines, a Cambodian meal is best enjoyed when shared with others.
Common ingredients in Cambodian cuisine
A common ingredient, almost a national institution, is a pungent type of fermented fish paste used in many dishes, a distinctive flavouring known as prahok. It’s an acquired taste for most Westerners, but is an integral part of Khmer cuisine and is included in many dishes or used as a dipping sauce. The liberal use of prahok, which adds a salty tang to many dishes, is a characteristic which distinguishes Khmer cuisine from that of its neighbours. Prahok can be prepared many ways and eaten as a dish on its own right. Prahok jien, is fried and usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can also be eaten with dips, vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice. Prahok gop or prahok ang is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under a fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
When prahok is not used, kapi (a kind of fermented shrimp paste) is used instead. Khmer cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups and stir-fried dishes, and as a dipping sauce.
Unknown in Asia before the 16th century, the chilli pepper arrived with the Portuguese. More years still passed before the chilli pepper reached Cambodia and, to this day it lacks a certain status in Khmer cooking and is not extensively used, unlike neighbouring Thailand, Laos or Malaysia. Black pepper is the preferred choice when heat is wanted in a dish; it is used in stir fries, soups, marinades for grilled meats, and dipping sauces. Pepper has a long history in Cambodia, having been grown since at least the 13th century, while the pungent, aromatic variety from Kampot province (bordering Vietnam Ha Tien province on the east, the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and the jungle-clad Elephant Mountains to the north) was once Cambodia’s chief export from the late 1800s up till the 1960s.
Kampot Pepper was once known as the King of Peppers, revered by gourmands worldwide for its floral and eucalyptus notes, its heady aroma, its musky heat, and its medicinal properties. Before the 1970s, Kampot pepper was used in all French restaurants for the classic dish steak au poivre. Today, the pepper industry is being revitalised and, since acquiring protected Geographic Indication status in 2008 (which gives it the same special status as Champagne in France), people can now purchase Kampot pepper online in many parts of the world, allowing a new generation of gourmands to rediscover one of the world’s most elusive and prestigious spices.
Jungle cardamom, or wild cardamom, grows in the aptly named Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country, bordering the Gulf of Thailand coast to the south and Trat province in Thailand to the west. These vast mountains form the last remaining area of intact virgin rainforest in Southeast Asia and harbour extensive mangrove forests, elephants, tigers, Siamese crocodiles and other rare and endangered species, and few people live in this area. Locals use cardamom medicinally and in certain samlors, using the root of the plant as well as the pod. Turmeric is grown in Battambang province and is a common ingredient in many curry powders, soups and rice dishes. Saffron is also esteemed in local folk medicine as a treatment for many ailments, especially skin problems.
Tamarind is commonly employed as a soup base for dishes such as samlar machu. Star anise is a must when caramelising meat in palm sugar like pork in the dish known as pak lov. Turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are essential spices in Khmer cooking, Khmer stews, and nearly all curries.
From India, by way of Java, Cambodians have been taught the art of blending spices into a paste using many ingredients like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. Other native ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, coriander (cilantro), and kaffir lime leaves are added to this mix to make a distinctive and complex spice blend called Kroeung. Other ingredients for kroeung used by Khmers are lemongrass, turmeric powder, garlic, prahok, and lemon leaf. This is an important aromatic paste commonly used in Cambodian cooking.
Many vegetables used in Khmer cuisine are also used in Chinese cuisine. Vegetables such as winter melon, bitter melon, luffa, water spinach and yardlong beans can be found in soups and stews. Oriental squash can be stewed, stir fried or sweetened and steamed with coconut milk as a dessert. Vegetables like mushrooms, cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots, fresh ginger, kai-lan (“Chinese broccoli”), snow peas, and bok choy are commonly used in many different stir fry dishes. Together these stir fry dishes are known by the generic term chhar. Banana blossoms are sliced and added to some noodle dishes like nom banh chok.
Fruits in Cambodia are so popular that they have their own royal court. The durian is considered the “king,” the mangosteen the “queen,” sapodilla the “prince” and the milk fruit (phlai teuk doh ko) the “princess.” Other popular fruits include: the jan fruit, kuy fruit, romduol, pineapple, star apple, rose apple, coconut, palmyra fruit, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, mango and rambutan. Although fruits are usually considered desserts, some fruits such as ripe mangoes, watermelon, and pineapples are eaten commonly with heavily salted fish with plain rice. Fruits are also made into beverages called tuk kolok, mostly shakes. Popular fruits for shakes are durian, mangoes, bananas.
Fish and meat
As the country has an extensive network of waterways, freshwater fish plays a large part in the diet of most Cambodians, making its way into many recipes. Daily fresh catches come from the Mekong River, Bassac River and the vast Tonlé Sap. Fish is far more common than meat in Khmer cuisine and fish forms 60% of the Cambodian intake of proteins. Prahok itself is based on fish. Many of the fish types eaten in Cambodia are freshwater fish from the Tonlé Sap or from the Mekong. Dried salted fish known as trei ngeat are a favourite with plain rice porridge. The popular Khmer dish called amok uses a kind of catfish steamed in a savoury coconut-based curry. The small fish known as Trey Dang Dau are very common and are often eaten deep-fried.
While freshwater fish is the most commonly used meat in the Cambodian diet, pork and chicken are also popular. Though not as common as in neighbouring Vietnam, vegetarian food is a part of Khmer cuisine and often favoured by more observant Buddhists.
Pork is quite popular in making sweet Khmer sausages known as twah ko. Beef and chicken are stewed, grilled or stir fried. Seafood includes an array of shellfish such as clams, cockles, crayfish, shrimp and squid. Lobsters are not commonly eaten because of their price, but middle-class and rich Cambodians enjoy eating them at Sihanoukville. Duck roasted in Chinese char siu style is popular during festivals. More unusual varieties of meat include frog, turtle, and arthropods (including tarantulas); these would are difficult to find in Khmer cuisine abroad but are used in everyday dishes in Cambodia.
Many elements of Cambodian noodle dishes were inspired by Chinese and Vietnamese cooking despite maintaining a distinct Khmer variation. Prahok is never used with noodle dishes. Rice stick noodles are used in mee katang, which is a Cambodian variation of chǎo fěn with gravy. Unlike the Chinese styled chǎo fěn, the noodles are plated under the stir fry beef and vegetables and topped off with scrambled eggs. Burmese style noodles (Mee Kola) is a vegetarian dish made from thin rice stick noodles, steamed and cooked with soy sauce and garlic chives. This is served with pickled vegetables Jroak, julienned eggs, and sweet garlic fish sauce garnished with crushed peanuts. Mi Cha is stir fried egg noodles.
Popular dishes in Cambodian cuisine
- Amok Trey – This is probably Cambodia’s most well-known dish amongst visitors; there are similar dishes found in neighbouring countries. Freshwater fish fillet (commonly snakehead fish, or Mekong catfish) is covered with an aromatic kroeung (pounded shallots, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime), roasted crushed peanuts, coconut milk, and egg and then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until it achieves a mousse-like texture. Unlike the Thai, Lao and Malaysian versions of the same dish, it is not intended to be spicy but rather fragrant, zesty and flavourful.
- Ansom chek – A cylindrical rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and filled with bananas (sweet). There is a savoury version filled with pork and mung bean paste called ansom chrook.
- Babor – Derived from the standard Chinese congee, this quintessential breakfast dish has many regional Cambodian incarnations. A type of porridge made with white rice, plain or with a chicken or pork broth, and served with fresh bean sprouts, caramelised garlic oil, green onions, omelette, fried breadsticks or dried fish from the Tonle Sap (trey ngeat). Babor pray is the name for the common marketplace dish of salted dried fish with rice porridge.
- Kuy teav – In the Khmer language, kuyteav refers to the dish and the rice noodles themselves. This traditional pork broth-based rice noodle soup dish is a popular breakfast dish in Cambodia and is popular in neighbouring countries and in countries that have a large Khmer population. Originally developed by Cambodians of Chinese descent, it is always served with the garnishes of lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, chopped spring onions, sawtooth coriander, black Kampot pepper, lime juice, and caramelised garlic oil. Kuy teav may be served in one of two ways, with all the ingredients in the soup, or with the soup on the side. Both versions have the same ingredients and allow the diner to control the balance of flavours, temperatures and textures. The Phnom Penh version of kuy teav (called hu tieu Nam Vang by the Vietnamese) is the most extravagant, often containing some or all of the following toppings: pork belly, ground pork, pigs blood jelly, chopped pork offal such as intestine, heart, liver and lung, roasted duck, Mekong river prawns, fish cake and squid. Modern versions of kuy teav featuring beef, chicken, or seafood (rather than the original pork-based broth) have evolved recently, but the plethora of garnishes that distinguish kuy teav remain the same.
- Bay chhar – A Khmer variation of fried rice which includes Chinese sausages, garlic, soy sauce, and herbs, usually eaten with pork.
- Banchao – The Khmer version of the Vietnamese dish bánh xèo.
- Ban hoaw – Steamed rice vermicelli noodles with mint, crushed peanuts, pickled vegetables, and deep fried egg rolls, cut into bite sized pieces, lathered in sweet fish sauce.
- Bok L’hong – Khmer green papaya salad, pounded in a mortar and pestle. Related to Laotian Tam mak hoong, the salad may include the herb kantrop, Asian basil, string beans, roasted peanuts, cherry tomatoes, salted preserved small crabs, smoked or dried fish, and chilli peppers. Mixed with a savoury dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and/or prahok.
- Kdam Chha Mrich Kchei – A regional specialty from Kep province that features freshly caught crab from the Gulf of Thailand, sauteed with young garlic and lashings of green Kampot peppercorn.
- Chruok svay – Unripe julienned mango salad flavoured with fish sauce and peppers. Usually served as a side dish with fried or baked fish and rice.
- Kralan – A cake (nom) made from a mixture of rice with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk, palm sugar and sometimes sesame, all steamed in a pole of bamboo that gets slowly roasted over charcoal.
- Lok Lak – Stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions, served on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes and dipped in a sauce consisting of lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper. It is the Cambodian rendition of the French-influenced Vietnamese dish Bò lúc lắc, but retains a distinct Cambodian edge with the dipping sauce Tuk Meric, and the requisite garnishes of plenty of salad leaves, barely ripe tomato and sliced onions. Regional variants include lok lak Americain, found in bistro menus in Phnom Penh, distinguished by the addition of French fries (rather than rice) and a fried egg sunny side up.
- Lou – Cambodian thick short noodles, with added eggs and chicken, eaten mainly with fish sauce.
- Mee Ketang – Wide rice noodles in an oyster sauce typically stir fried with eggs, baby corn, carrots, Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and a choice of meat, usually beef. The name of the dish translates literally as Cantonese-style noodles in Khmer, revealing its origin amongst the early Cantonese community in Cambodia who arrived between the late sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is essentially similar to the Thai dish rad na. The Cantonese were traditionally called Ketang by the Khmer.
- Mee M’poang – crispy yellow noodles served under a sauce of eggs, carrots, Chinese broccoli, bok choy and a meat.
- Ngam nguv – A chicken soup flavoured with whole preserved lemons.
- Chhar khnhei – A spicy stir fry (chhar) of meat, usually chicken, eel or frog flavoured with julienned gingeroot, black Kampot pepper, garlic, soy and sometimes fresh jalapeños or fresh peppers, for extra heat.
- Nom ban chok – A well-known and beloved Cambodian dish found at streetside vendors, restaurants, produce markets (psahs) such as the Psah Thom Thmey (Central Market, Phnom Penh) and in shophouses. In English it’s often simply called simply Khmer noodles, owing to its ubiquity across the country. Nom ban chok is a typical breakfast food and was originally a regional speciality from Kampot province, consisting of noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime. Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower, cucumbers and other greens are heaped on top by the diner. There is also a red curry version that is usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities.
- Nom Yip – yellow star like dessert made of egg yolk, flour, and sugar.
- Naem – a spring roll-type dish served with tuk trey dipping sauce.
- Pleah sach ko – Lime and prahok-cured beef salad, sometimes also including beef tripe, tossed with thinly sliced purple Asian shallots, finely shaved radish, crushed roasted peanuts and fresh herbs such as mint and basil. Sometimes known as Cambodian beef ceviche, it is very popular at wedding and special occasions.
- Samlor kari – A traditional wedding and celebration dish, features coconut chicken curry gently spiced with paprika, and with a soupy consistency, often cooked with sweet potatoes, julienned onion, snake beans and bamboo shoot. The soup is also used as a dipping sauce for fresh baguettes, while nom ban chok samlor kari is often served for breakfast the next day, featuring the same ingredients to make nom ban chok but using the samlor kari broth instead of the traditional turmeric and fish-based broth that goes into making nom ban chok.
- Samlor machu – Actually denotes an entire class of samlor, whereby the dominant flavour is an aromatic, citrusy tartness, and there are many different versions. Of all the primary flavours (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, umami), Khmers are most fond of sourness, almost every town or province has its own unique version of samlor machu including 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 tiny freshwater shrimp). The sourness and citrus flavour can come from prahok, tamarind, lemongrass, kaffir lime, lime juice, or herbs like lemon basil. It is cognate with the Vietnamese sour soup canh chua.
- Khor – A braised pork or chicken and egg stew flavoured in caramelised palm sugar, fish sauce and black Kampot pepper. It may contain tofu or bamboo shoots and often substitutes quail eggs for chicken eggs. A typical Khmer Krom dish, khor is similar to the Vietnamese dish of Thi.t Kho and the Filipino dish called Humba.
- Sankya Lapov – A dessert made of pumpkin and coconut flan.
- Yao hon or yaohon – A banquet-style hot pot for dipping beef, shrimp, spinach, dill, napa cabbage, rice noodles and mushrooms. It is similar to the Japanese sukiyaki, however, it is derived from the Chinese hot pot. Nowadays, this dish is quite rare in Cambodia, but is well loved by members of the Cambodian diaspora in France, the US and Australia.
- Nom pang chen (literally Chinese bread): Spring onion bread often referred as Chinese pizza. It combines Chinese and French style foods. It is flat and baked and fried simultaneously rather than simply being fried like its Chinese counterpart.