What to Expect from Cambodian Cuisine

28, September, 2017

What to Expect from Cambodian Cuisine

Cambodian cuisine (also referred to as Khmer cuisine) is delicious and takes influence from neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand, as well as the past French colony period. The ingredients in Khmer cuisine are typical to other SE Asian culinary traditions and include sticky rice, shallots, kaffir lime, galangal, lemongrass, coconut milk, chillies, garlic, lime, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Read more: Cambodian Food and Drink

Everything you need to know

1) Dishes are hugely varied
Khmer cuisine has a quite strong French influence which dates back to the country’s French colony period. This leads to a love for a great cup of coffee and baguettes. Over the years of Chinese migration there has been an introduction of fresh Thai-style salads, aromatic curries and noodles. Many dishes experienced on the Cambodia tours are impacted by geographical variations, with seafood popular in regions along the mighty Mekong River and the country’s long southern coastline.

2) The flavour is key
Similar to Vietnamese and Thai dishes, the Cambodian food is typically characterised by contrasting textures and flavours with a combination of sticky rice, spicy chillies, and tangy pickles that are combined with fresh herbs. Many dishes feature a fish sauce, while other additions can include salty soy sauce, creamy coconut milk, sweet palm sugar and lime. The local cuisine is likely to include less spices than Thai cuisine and heartier than the dishes served in Vietnam.  

Also, the different kinds of flavours in these foods may taste a little bitter to the Western palates. This is likely to relate to the fermented fish paste that is a standard ingredient for seasoning in a variety of dishes. It has quite salty, strong taste that many travellers will need a little time to get used to, but it can vary in taste because of the different cooking methods and ingredients.

3) Rice is a staple element
Rice is virtually a staple element in nearly every dish served in Cambodia. Many meals are created around a bowl of rice with the accompanying dishes served in separate bowls, which may consist of curries, pickles and stir fries.

Cambodia has a choice of nearly a dozen types of rice. In addition to accompanying main dishes served at lunch and dinner, rice is also a popular feature on the street food scene with snacks such as rice noodle soup and deep-fried rice cakes.

4) Meals can get exciting
Beyond the most popular dishes with servings of seafood, beef and pork, the more daring diner has the opportunity to taste other Khmer delicacies such as a crispy fried tarantula, grilled crickets, red tree ants, crickets, or scorpions.

5) Known for its delicious food
Fish Amok is likely to be the most popular dish for travellers on the Cambodia tour packages. This is a type of curry dish based on an aromatic marinade of kroeung curry paste and coconut milk which is steamed and served in a banana leaf. Fish Amok isn’t super spicy because it relies on more fresh herbs than spices which is unlike plenty of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand cooking trends.

Even though Fish Amok is seen as a national dish in Cambodia, it is in fact a Khmer variation of a Thai dish and is not massively popular with local people.

6) Similarities with SE Asian cuisine
Cambodia has a few dishes that are just as popular in neighbouring countries. For instance the Baguette-type sandwich (locally called num pang pate) is also popular in Vietnam and known as banh mi. Also, a favourite drink likely to be seen on the Indochina travel is iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk which is also a favourite in Vietnam.   

How best to experience the local cuisine
The ability to experience the Cambodian culture and cuisine is possible with one of many real food adventures, ranging from a cooking class and market tour to staying overnight in a traditional homestay with a local family:

Cooking class in Phnom Penh
A great place to experience the cooking class and market tour is in the capital Phnom Penh. An early morning guided tour of a local market gives the opportunity to pick fresh ingredients to use later in the day. A typical cooking lesson covers the basics of Khmer cuisine with a hands-on cooking lesson that includes recreating a few of the most popular recipes.

Rural cycle and food tour
Travellers exploring the rural regions of Cambodia are certain to appreciate the off-the-beaten-path temple city of Banteay Chhmar. A great way to tour the countryside is by bicycle with its many local villages and shady roads. While travelling in this remote part it is worthwhile stopping to witness a few of the local industries, such as the production of fermented fish paste (prahok), rice wine making, fruit drying and rice paper making. The fish paste is intimately tied to Khmer cuisine and is certain to be worthwhile seeing.

Rest in up in Homestay
While in the quiet city of Banteay Chhmar it is worth taking advantage of the welcoming hospitality of the local people. Travellers get to stay the night in a wooden stilted traditional house and enjoy a wonderful home cooked meal freshly prepared by your hosts.

Street food tour
The street food scene is incredibly popular in many towns and cities throughout SE Asia. The best way to appreciate the culinary diversity in Cambodia is to take a tuk-tuk ride around the city streets of Siem Reap. A few of the street food delights include green mango served with salt and chilli, Khmer fried chicken, barbecued meat and corn on skewers, and more. Try to finish the tour with a visit to a dessert stall with a choice of specialities, such as baked puddings and fruit with sweet condensed milk.

Fantastic food is possible to find everywhere on the Vietnam and Cambodia tours, but both Siem Reap (gateway to Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh (capital city) are particular favourites with a wonderfully fresh food scene and market opportunities. Elsewhere, travellers in the region of Kep and Kampot can experience amazing seafood dishes, especially crab. Also, the coastal city of Sihanoukville is appreciated for its varied take on seafood, which includes several styles like European and Japanese.