Foodies are coming around to loving Cambodian food. A blend of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese, it has subtle flavors, not nearly as spicy as Thai nor as citrusy as Vietnamese cooking and certainly less heavy on the palate than Chinese.
Top U.S. magazines Bon Appetit and Gourmet at the beginning of 2008 predicted that Cambodian’s cooking, with its emphasis on noodle dishes, curries, stir fries and prahok, the strong-flavored fish paste, would be the “It” cuisine of 2008.
Cambodia has a huge variety of indigenous dishes. Some are similar to Thai and Vietnamese cooking and others to Chinese, but there is that subtle difference – an odd herb or spice here and there – which makes it special.
Eat Like a Local in Cambodia
Freshwater fish figure prominently in the Cambodian kitchen and they appear in soups such as somlar mahou banle (sour fish soup), with noodles as a popular Cambodian breakfast, num banh choc (rice noodle and fish soup) or grilled, trey ahng, This is a Cambodian specialty and is usually served in pieces which are eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped into teuk trey, a fish sauce like Vietnam’s nuoc mam, but with extra ground peanuts.
If there is such as a thing as a Cambodian national dish, the amoc has to be it. This is a fish curry steamed in a cup of banana leaves with coconut milk, lemon grass, chilli and tumeric. It takes an hour to steam the fish and it is usually served with rice. Do not overlook the chhnang phnom pleung, the Cambodian barbeque also known as the Volcano Pot!
Our Daily Rice
Rice is the main staple and with prahok (salted and fermented fish paste) forms the foundation of Cambodian cuisine. Prahok is used either as a seasoning or condiment, but contrary to popular belief, is not used in all dishes. In the street stalls, Cambodians often like to dip their vegetables or fruit in uncooked prahok.
Many of the noodle dishes are influenced by the Chinese and Vietnamese but are prepared with a Cambodian twist. Freshness is critical and the Cambodian cook ensues a healthy balance of flavors and textures. A typical Cambodian meal is served with a samlor (soup) which, like on most Southeast Asian tables, will be served along with other courses. Samlor machou bangkwang (a sour and spicy prawn soup) similar to the tom yang gung in Thailand) is popular.
Soups will also be made with beef, pork and chicken but these are generally more expensive than fish. Samlor chapek is ginger-flavored pork soup and mon sngor is chicken and coriander soup. Samlor kari nom banh jok is a rice vermicelli soup with coconut curry, chicken, fresh string beans, shredded cabbage and carrots and unripe papaya. It is sometimes eaten with a French baguette.
Pork is used to make sweet Cambodian sausages or twah ko or stewed with eggs in a hearty Cambodian dish called caw. A favorite Cambodian beef dish is the lok lak which is stir fried marinated beef cubes on a bed of salad, tomatoes and onions and topped with a fried egg. It is dipped in a lime and pepper sauce.
Kampot Pepper, Kroeung and Other Spices
Cambodian cuisine goes back to well before the introduction of the chilli into Asia, and consequently, chilli is used as a side dish, unlike in Thailand where it is considered an important ingredient. The Cambodian curry is red in color but is sweet, rather than spicy as the coloring comes from local mkak seeds. At the same time, the Cambodians prefer to use sweet potatoes, which adds a sweetness to their curries, unlike neighboring cuisines which prefer the potato.
What sets Cambodian apart is a complex blend of spices called kroeung. It is a multi-spice blend made of cardamon, star anise, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and tumeric, harkening back to Indian and Javanese influences, to which are added native herbs such as galangal, lemon grass, garlic, shallots, cilantro and kaffir leaves. To this mix of culinary tricks, add renowned Kampot pepper, an aromatic and strong tasting pepper that was used by chefs in France until production came to a halt with the Khmer Rouge. Grown in a riverside village near the seaside town of Kep, Kampot pepper cultivation is now being revived using a mix of traditional and modern techniques.
Coriander, mint, lemon grass and Thai basil are integral ingredients in the salad dishes. These are served cold but often come with a sweet and sour dressing. Tease your tastebuds with banana blossom salad which is shredded banana flower leaves, mixed herbs of mint, Thai basil and fishwort tossed with chicken and chilli peper with a dressing on the side. Mixing fruit with vegetables is a common combination for Cambodian salads and the mango salad is green mango and mixed herbs topped with dried shrimp and peanuts with the sweet and sour dressing.
Fruit found in Cambodia is similar to those found in its neighbors and Cambodia is blessed to have an abundance of them. The Cambodian mango, the ones that come out in hot season, called the svay are an absolute must to try. Fruits found in abundance are the chek (banana), menoa (pineapples), duong (coconut), mongkut (mangosteen), sao mao (rambutans), owlock (watermelon), llong (papaya). The larger fruit include the knoll (jackfruit) and of course, the thouren (durian), the southeast Asian fruit with an inescapable smell and creamy flavors. Fruit is also used in shakes, teuk kalohk, and are a little like a smoothie but much sweeter and made with an egg to make it extra frothy. The egg is optional and you can ask to have less sugar tossed in.
Haute Cuisine Deep Fried Skuon Spiders
Less well known but dearly loved by the Cambodians are delicacies such as the Skuon spider, (a-ping) which is deep fried with lashings of salt and pepper until it turns a deep brown color and served piping hot. The spider as culinary haute cuisine however has a sad beginning. It was during the Khmer Rouge years that the Cambodians, starving slaves in the rice fields, burrowed into the fields for food and found sustenance in the form of bugs, water beetles and the Skuon spider, a palm sized tarantula, which turned out to be pretty delicious. Skuon is some 50km north of Phnom Penh and on a good day, a spider vendor can sell between 100-200 spiders. At 300 riel (US$0.08) each, this is pretty good income in a country where most are living on less than US$1 a day.
The hairy black Skuon spider is part of Cambodia’s traditional pharmacy, especially when soaked in rice wine, and treats backache and kids with colds. A bottle of spider wine fetches around US$2.00.
Crickets Leap from Paddy Fields to Dining Tables
The other unlikely candidate which made the leap from rice field to culinary must is the water cricket. Like they did with the Skuon spider, the Cambodians relied on the water crickets to stay alive, and now deep fry them in spices for a daily delicacy. When the annual cricket season starts, farmers in Kampong Thom can catch up to 20kg of the crickets by luring them from the paddy fields with blue neon lights. Raw crickets sell between 2,000 – 5,000 riel (US$0.50 – US $1.25) per kilogram and vendors at the markets can sell up to US$20 of crunchy friend crickets a day. Demand is now so strong that middlemen with cell phones are now jostling with local farmers during the nightly hunts.
The Way of the Dessert in Cambodia
Appease a sweet tooth with Cambodian desserts which are coconut based and often served with glutinous rice, and are not unlike other Southeast Asian desserts. Desserts can be found in any restaurant and easily sampled at the street stalls. Look out for sticky rice with palm sugar syrup and mango, pumpkin with whisked egg white, coconut milk and jackfruit in a scooped out pumpkin called a sankya lapov. Kuay Namuan is a Cambodian banana split in which coconut milk and sugar are simmered till creamy and then poured over bananas.
The heat and humidity make drinking liquids a necessity and while tea (tai) is the national drink, the Cambodians love their beer. Angkor Beer and Bayon beers are national labels produced in two breweries in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and is exported around the world. However, these breweries are also busily churning out other well known labels for export, so expect to find Anchor, Tiger and Asahi beer as well.
Despite all odds, wine is produced in Cambodian wine and the first winery is to be found in Battambang. Cambodians drink only rice wine which is super strong, but the Prasat Phnom Banan Vineyard is turning out the country’s home grown wine, which is proving to be a surprising hit. Despite being a French colony, vineyards were never cultivated as it was thought that the tropical weather would not be conducive to good grapes. Owner Chan Thay Chhoeung believed differently and bottled his first Shiraz and Rosé in 2004. He now focuses on producing organic wines, and wine-tasting served with an organic lunch at his vineyard has become a feature on organized tours.