Food in Cambodia: All you need to know
The first time I came to Cambodia was 2004. I was a tourist, had no clue about the country and the culture. The first thing I did after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh was to go straight downtown and look for a local restaurant. One of those with red or blue plastic chairs and metals tables. I ordered a noodle soup as my entree to food in Cambodia, and boy was it good.
Cambodian food is generally not well known around the world, and even within the country. Most travelers may have heard about Beef Lok Lak and Amok, but that’s pretty much it. What is less known: Khmer food goes back further in time than Thai and Lao food. Let’s get into our time capsule and travel back to the year 810. It’s the early years the reign of King Jayavarman II., the founder of the Khmer empire and god-king. He was also Hindu, and influence from India is still visible in Khmer food. The way of cooking, both for the common people and the royals, paved the path for the cuisines in the whole region.
Khmer food is rather sweet than hot
Often people wonder, why Khmer food is less spicy as in Thailand and Laos. The answer is simple: when Cambodian food was developed, the Khmer people did not know about chilies. They came way later from South-America (like the papaya). There is also reason to believe that the famous Thai dish Som Tham, a spicy papaya salad, is a copy of a Khmer version made from mango and rice field crabs.
Different regions, different taste
Food in Cambodia is as in many countries diversified by regions. There is no single dish to feed them all. People in Siem Reap fir example make a nice Prahok, the fish paste, and add red ants to it. Kuyteav is eaten on Phnom Penh with many more ingredients than in other places, and sometimes with the soup in the side. It‘s origin is Chinese, like many other dishes with noodles. You can eat Num Banh Chok sometimes with green curry and fish, sometimes with a red curry and in Kampot As a rice noodle salad with fried spring roll, like some Vietnamese dishes.
Travelers often mistake Samlor with a soup. Although it has the same appearance, locals eat Samlor always with rice. Everything else is called Sup, and influenced from China and Europe. The most typical Samlor is Samlor Machu, because it is full of all kind of flavors. There are not many dishes in the world which taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami at the same time. Most Samlors have the Kreung paste as a base, made from lemongrass an other ingredients. Then again, the recipes vary from family to family and village to village. There are vegetarian options and some with pork ribs (our host Yem Panha cooks it with you in Battambang), Khmer Krom uses fish and tomatoes, and Samlor Machu Siem Reap contains bamboo shoot and little freshwater shrimps.
Food in Cambodia: stir fried, fried or boiled
While Samlor takes a bit to be prepared, stir fried dishes are easy to make. They were introduced by Chinese business people from Hokkien Tsha, who moved to South-East-Asia. Those chines immigrants had as much (if not more) influence to the food and economy than Indian predecessors. What gives stir fry a Khmer flavor are the ingredients. Some food on Cambodia is made with young ginger, other uses tamarind, fresh crabs (like in Kampot and Kep) or beef cubes like in Beef Lok Lak. Cha Kuy Teav is popular in Cambodias south, with fried flat noodles and strong dark soy sauce.
Char Khnei (fried ginger) is quote popular with both locals and tourists, and best made with chicken meat. In
At many places where you eat breakfast you can find rice with barbecue pork and a scrambled egg on top. If you are brave, then try Phak Lov, braised and caramelized intestines. It is very popular as a side dish in Cambodian beer gardens. If you pass by main streets in the evening, you will most probably see a cow half on a big BBQ. It is grilled there since the morning and then cut on demand, either for take away or for having at the restaurant.
Beef Lok Lak is a salad
And then there are salads. The most ancient salad is the mango salad. Khmer use green shredded mango, not the ripe ones. The dressing contains lime, sugar fish sauce, chilies, Gallicanism shallots. Most important is the salty crab mixed with the salad right before serving. It goes well with sticky rice. The „pleah“ is a salad not for the faint hearted: Beef is mixed with prahok and herbs, some lime and pepper, usually served with rice on the side. And last but not least you will find Beef Lok Lak sometimes hidden in the salad section. The reason is that it is served with salad leaves, cucumber and tomatoes. The story goes that Vietnamese chefs invented it to please the french occupiers. They thought french people like salad and beef.
The heart of Khmer food: Prahok
If there is one thing that is really typical for Khmer food, than it’s prahok. The name stand for a fish paste made from small sweet water fishes called Trey Riel. When you make prahok at home, you just cut the fishes into pieces ad put then in a basket. They usually the kids crush them with their bare feet, the same way as it’s done with grapes in France. Once it has the consistency of a paste, it has to dry out in the sun for one day. Finally the paste gets a lot of salt and goes into big jars.
A good prahok may ferment for years, but most people just wait for a few weeks. As many fermented foods prahok was always used as a protein source in times when fish harvest was low. The name of the fish (Trey Riel) and the name of the Khmer currency are the same. It is said that the fish was once so valuable that it became kind of currency.
The queen of Khmer food: Amok
There is no restaurant in Cambodia for tourists that doesn’t have amok on the menu. Traditionally amok is a fish dish, but some place now offer it with pork or chicken as well. In particular cooking classes cheat a bit on the more expensive fish. It is similar to Thai steamed fish cakes. How is it made? It is not too difficult, but requires some time and tools. The basic recipe contains fish cubes, eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar. Then you mix it and season carefully with kroeung, a curry paste concoction of freshly pounded spices, including lemongrass, tumeric, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic, shallots and chillies.
Many versions available
While restaurants steam amok this days in professional steamers, the traditional way asks for a banana leaf. One ingredient responsible for the authentic taste is noni leaves. This plant grows usually in local gardens and in front of houses. The fruits later become quite stinky. For amok, you take only the young leaves and shred them. These days restaurants add beans and carrots to amok, mainly to stretch it and save money by replacing fish. There are attempts to use tofu or mushrooms for vegetarian option, but without much success. TV-Star and Chef Gordon Ramsey once visited Siem Reap and learned, that amok needs to steam for 40 minutes. While this is true for a family home, in restaurants you don’t want to let people wait for such a long times. Amok made in 20 minutes is a great and tasteful dish.
History of Khmer desserts
Khmer cuisine also has a vast variety of desserts, and one of the most famous is the layered cake, Num Chak. The family of one of our hosts make it every day to sell on the market. Sareth father is in charge. First he grinds rice to a fine powder. Then he shreds pandan leaves to small pieces. Then he mixes half of the rice powder with pandan leaf powder. The other half is on a seperate bowl. He adds coconut milk to both bowls and some palm sugar. Now the mixture has to boil for about 15 minutes. Then he carefully fills the white mixture first in a bowl floating on some cold water. This is the first layer. Once it cooled. He adds a layer of green mixture and so on. We have a video from the production site.
There is also some interesting history, as one of our facebook friends told us about the dessert:
Influence from Portugal
„Look up “Bebinca” in Gao, the former Portuguese Colony of India. It is likely the origin of Thai Kanom Chan, which get all the influence from the Portuguese traders and have became part of the Siamese royal court. Majority of Cambodian royalty during King Ang Doung regime, to King sisowath we’re educated in siam. There were records and mentioned about Siamese royal chef in khmer court at that time. Nyonya community in Malacca, Penang and Singapore also have “Kueh Lapis” which carried the influence from the European traders once the cultural community was formed.
Kanom Chan in Cambodia is only known during the latter centuries (early 20th century) and wasn’t embraced into the society, as only certain family knows how to do it. As the result, most Khanom Chan in Cambodia contain a name that aren’t translatable in khmer language as well as a product of a struggling recipes.
The point is “the resemblance of Thai and Khmer “Khanon Chan” has this connected histories through the latter centuries of Portuguese influences and the growing power of Siamese court over the neighboring country, it didn’t go back far as most people will claim.“
Most important tools to make Cambodian food
When I was watching my neighbors in Siem Reap preparing food I was surprised that they only need a hand full of tools in their kitchen. They cook food every day, and at Dine With The Locals we want to follow this local way of cooking. That’s why we are beyond the classic cooking class – authentic food and tools, real homes and families. This way, we don’t use much plastic and most waste is natural from left over food and vegetables.
So, what are the 5 basic tools you need when you preparing food in a Khmer home?
- The mortar
- A wooden board
- A cleaver
- A asian spoon
- Gas stove
The mortar – in every home and cooking class
The mortar is something like the Asian food processor. It is environmental friendly, since it needs no electricity. I remember when I tried to cook Khmer food the first time in my home. To make the Khmer spice paste Krueng I added all ingredients in my blender and mixed them together. When I showed the paste to my neighbors, they were shaking their heads and laughing. Then the gave a me a wooden mortar and told me, to start again. and indeed, it makes a huge difference. Once you smash minced galangal, lemon gras, kaffir limes, turmeric and lemongrass together, you see the difference immediately. The fibers are longer and the paste has less liquid.
A traditional mortar is made of wood, and can contain around 1 liter. We buy them on the local market for 9 Dollar, and a good product lasts a few years. In more modern kitchens you find mortars made of stone, usually smaller than the wooden ones. The advantage is that you can crack more solid ingredients better, liker pepper and peanuts. The pestle is from the same material as the mortar, either wood or stone. You can find ceramic mortars as well, however they are more common in pharmacies or as decoration.
A wooden board
While western regulations require now plastic sheets in different colors when you cut vegetables, fish, meat or chicken. Cambodia has all-in-one. Every family owns a wooden board, usually like a disk with 30 cm diameter. It’s best to cut ginger and garlic with a cleaver, but also to slice fish open and make beef cubes for Beef Lok Lak. The wood is local wood, and a family buys the board either on a local market or from a passing-by vendor.
A good chef – like a barber – owns a selection of good knives. But they are expensive in Cambodia, and the cleaver is kind of a Swiss knife for the kitchen. You can cut carrots with it, but also smash garlic gloves. These days families purchase cleavers from Thailand or Vietnam. Cambodia doesn’t have a big steel industry and many homes rely on imported goods from neighboring countries.
An asian spoon
It’s also called a Chinese spoon and has a different shape compared to western spoons. Typical is a thick handle extending directly from a deep, flat bowl. You can shave fish meat when you make fish balls with it, but also use it to taste a Samlor or to add more sugar to a dish. Like most tools it is multi-purpose use.
Gas stove or charcoal burner
There are usually two ways of heating food in Cambodia: The old way is to use the charcoal burner or Asian clay oven, the modern way is to fire up a gas stove. The latter is getting more popular now, since it doesn’t emit those toxic gases the charcoal has. also, the gas bottles can be refilled easily. Nearly ever mom and pop shop has a exchange service for used gas bottles.
Summary: Khmer food is a new world to discover
Cambodian food is popular in some US-States due to a lot of refugees there. Florida is one state where you find a lot of Khmer restaurants. In Europe it is still rare. But of course the best way to try Khmer cuisine is to buy food in Cambodia from local restaurants. And of course, if you want to make it yourself, meet at the same time local families and have a great time together, check our host list at Dine With The Locals. It’s ever growing in Cambodia and hopefully soon in other countries.