Travelling to Southern Cambodia, you can easily come across farms growing pepper. Large wooden stakes, up to 2.5 meters high, support the leafy vines of black peppercorn. If you want to learn about Cambodian cuisine, this is a good image to start with: everything you encounter in your searches is marked by this mélange of strong tradition and exotic settings. The good part is that, more than any other neighboring cuisine, the Khmer way of preparing and eating food has preserved a special interest in fresh ingredients and spices.
The Eclectic Cuisine of Cambodia
Travelling northwest from Phnom Penh to Battambang and eating in a few villages along the way is a completely striking experience. Even basic knowledge about the food customs in this part of the world reveals at least three influences in the way Cambodians cook: the fascinating culinary art of Thailand, the strange, yet appealing Vietnamese customs, and a very specific touch of Chinese cuisine.
In fact, the more you approach Battambang and head north to Siem Reap or Sisophon, you are amazed how easily they switch from fresh cold salads to spicy meats.
Tired of western-style bistros featuring Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian food, we discovered something different here. People know there’s a major difference between local foods in Thailand and a highly sophisticated Thai restaurant in Los Angeles; yet Cambodian food is special, as you can’t actually cook it somewhere else without altering the taste: the food is so fresh and the kaffir lime leaves so juicy that they actually rely in the kitchen on this aspect. So what do they use?
Spices and Herbs: The Basics
Ginger, turmeric, aniseed, cardamom, nutmeg, lemongrass, galangal (aka blue ginger – a spice that hasn’t penetrated the western markets yet), coconut milk, coriander, and mint are quite common in Cambodia. They also flavor their salads and cold meals with peanuts. In Siem Reap, for example, you have so many choices, spiced in so many ways, that you have serious doubts when you need to choose: from street foods, like freshwater fish baked in banana leaf with mint and lemongrass, to stylish restaurant dishes, like stir fry chicken with turmeric and grilled eggplant. And the delicacies are…
Local Specialties for Connoisseurs
Creating a list with the best Cambodian dishes is like walking against the wind: you need a lot of local experience to be able to say honestly that you’ve tried them all. So this list is rather subjective, but do keep in mind that we did our best to choose them all: mild and tangy, sweet and hot, fresh, filling, and pungent.
- Spicy pork with lime sauce – this is best when served hot with local beer;
- Prahok – a paste made of fermented fish Cambodians use in many dishes;
- Amok – steamed fish with coconut, curry and local herbs;
- Trey Kho Manor – fish, pineapple and sugar; it tastes way better than it sounds;
- Tuk Trey – a fish sauce, common in many provinces in Cambodia;
- Star fruit steak – a delicious combination of fruits, ground spices, and meat.