|Cuisines of Asia and Oceania|
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Cambodian cuisine is one of the most underrated and misunderstood cuisines in Asia. It encompasses the food cultures of all Cambodia's ethnic groups – the Khmers, Khmer Loeu, Vietnamese, Chams, Mountain Chams, Lao and the Chinese. At the core of Cambodian cuisine lies Khmer cuisine (សិល្បៈធ្វើម្ហូបខ្មែរ), the more than thousand-year-old culinary art of the Khmer people native to modern-day Cambodia and other parts of the former Khmer Empire (Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Isaan in Thailand). Over time, Cambodian cuisine has incorporated elements of Indian, Chinese, in particular Teochew cuisine, and more recently French cuisine, and due to some of these shared influences and mutual interaction, it has many similarities with the neighbouring Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese cuisines.
|“||Traditional Cambodian cuisine is one of detail, of small amounts of fresh ingredients with intriguing textures, complex aromas and exhilarating flavours, combined to create distinctly light, delicate and healthy cuisine.||”|
—King Norodom Sihanouk, foreword of the book The Cuisine of Cambodia (2000)
Some might think of the Cambodian kitchen as a mixture of its neighbours, and the preference for many Cambodian restaurants abroad to serve the better-known Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes has definitely reinforced this stereotype. Meanwhile, the tendency for businesses in mainstream tourist areas in Cambodia to cater to visitors already familiar with the Thai flavours has meant that many travellers have not actually had authentic Khmer food even while in Cambodia.
|“||Khmer cuisine is all about fresh spices. There are influences from India, but always with fresh ingredients, not powders. Our cuisine is not as spicy as Thai and we don't use as much fish sauce as Vietnam, although we do love prahok. In France, they have almost unlimited types of cheese, and we are the same in Cambodia with prahok. We use very fresh spices that leave the diner feeling very light and refreshed. Indian food is characterised by spice, but we use a fresher spice.||”|
—Cambodian Master Chef Luu Meng
Rooted in the broader Southeast Asian food culture and the freshwater produce of the Mekong River Basin, Khmer cooking blends the qualities of two of its quintessential ingredients – the fermented pungency of the prahok fish paste and aromatic freshness of the kroeung herbal spice pastes. Rice, as well as dried, smoked and fermented fish, especially freshwater fish, form the basis of the local diet being eaten at almost every single meal and combined with a wide array of local roots, spices, herbs, leaves and fruits.
Examples of Cambodian culinary diversity include the Khmer lightly fermented rice noodle soup num banchok, Indian-influenced Khmer steamed fish curry amok trei, Khmer Krom caramelized meat and egg stew, Chinese Cambodian kuyteav noodle soup, French-inspired Vietnamese beef lok lak, French-inspired num pang baguette sandwiches, muslim Cham beef Saraman curry and the Kola noodles.
- Aloe vera (ប្រទាលកន្ទុយក្រពើ, ban teal kantuy krapeu) leaves are used for juice, in smoothes and desserts.
- Asian basil (ជីនាងវង, chi néangvông) leaves are added to salads and used as a garnish for soups.
- Banana blossoms are added to salads and used as a garnish for some soups (such as num banchok).
- Banana leaves (ស្លឹកចេក, chék slœ̆k) are used as food wrappers for grilling and steaming. Although not eaten and discarded afterwards, the moisture and flavour of banana leaves is imparted into the food.
- Bok choy (ស្ពៃតឿ, spai tue) is used in stir-fries and soups.
- Chili peppers (ម្ទេស, mtéh) are sometimes added to soups, but more commonly used for a dipping sauce made out of fish sauce, palm sugar and garlic
- Fingerroot (ខ្ខ្ជាយ, khchéay) is used to make herbal spice pastes.
- Galangal (មើមខ្ញី, meum khnhei) is used to make herbal spice pastes.
- Green peppercorns are added to stir-fries with seafood and white meat.
- Green mangoes are used in salads or eaten on their own with salt and chilli.
- Holy basil (ម្រះព្រៅ, mreah prov) leaves are used to garnish stir-fries and added to stuffings.
- Hot mint (ជីក្រសាំងទំហំ, chi krâsăng tumhum) is used in soups and salads.
- Kabocha (ល្ពៅ, lpow) is used in stews, stir-fries or some desserts.
- Kaffir lime (ក្រូចសើច, kroch saeuch) leaves are used for stews, soups and other long-cooking dishes.
- Lemongrass (ស្លឹកគ្រៃ, slœ̆k krey) is used to make herbal spice pastes, marinades and used in soups.
- Luffa (ននោងជ្រុង, nnong chrung) is used in stir-fries and soups.
- Pandan (ស្លឹកតើយ, sleuk toy) leaves are used for tea, desserts, juices and smoothies.
- Pepper elder (ក្រសាំងទាប krasang teap) stems are sometimes added to salads and stir-fries and used as garnish,
- Pomelo (ផ្លែក្រូចថ្លុង, phlê kroch thlŏng) is eaten on its own or added to salads. Koh Trong is famous for its sweet and seedless pomelos.
- Rice flour (ម្សៅអង្ករ, msaow angkor) is used to make dough and batter for desserts.
- Rice paddy herb (ម្អម, mʼâm) is used exclusively in soups, especially sour soups, where it adds a lemony taste.
- Sawtooth herb (ជីបន្លា, chi bánla) is often used as a garnish for soups and stews and added to salads.
- Star anise (ចាន់ការី, chănkari) is used in curries, some soups and when caramelizing meat in palm sugar, for example, for the braised pork ear and organ dish pak lov (ផាក់ឡូវ, pak ḷūv)
- Shallots (ខ្ទឹមក្រហម, khtœ̆m krâhâm) are used in herbal spice pastes and added to numerous dishes, whereas deep-fried slices of shallots are served as a garnish. Because of their sweetness, shallots are also added to some sweet dishes.
- Tamarind (អម្ពិល, âmpĭl) flowers, leaves and fruit are used for sour soups, while ground seeds are added to sauces.
- Turmeric (រមៀត, rômiĕt) is often used in curries and stews.
- Jasmine (ម្លិះ, malis) flowers are used for tea.
- Jicama (ដំឡូងរលួស, dâmlong rôluŏh) is added to salads, eaten on its own or with a mixture of salt, sugar and chilli peppers.
- Water lily (ផ្កាលីលីទឹក។, phka lili tuk) stems are used in soups or added to salads.
- Water mimosa (កញ្ឆែត, kanchhet) stems are sometimes added to salads and used in stir-fries and soups.
- Water spinach (ត្រកួន, trâkuŏch) is one of the basic ingredients, with its raw leaves added to salads and stems chopped and stir-fried or added to soups.
- Winter melon (ផ្លែត្រឡាច, phlê trâlach) is used in stir-fries and soups.
- Yardlong beans (សណ្ដែកកួរ, sándêk kuŏ) is used in stir-fries and soups.
A common ingredient, and perhaps one of the most unique about Khmer cuisine, is a fermented fish paste used in many dishes, a distinctive flavouring known as prahok. Despite its importance in Khmer cuisine, it is usually the first thing to be reduced or omitted from Khmer dishes served to tourists due to its acquired flavour that may leave unfamiliar eaters thinking the dish tastes "off". The use of prahok adds a salty tang to many dishes, which is a characteristic that distinguishes Khmer cuisine from that of its neighbours. Prahok can be prepared many ways and eaten as a dish in its own right. Fried prahok (prahok chien) is usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can also be eaten with dips or vegetables such as cucumbers or eggplants, and rice. Prahok gop or prahok ang (ប្រហុក កប់) or (ប្រហុក អាំង) is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
When prahok is not used, kapǐ (កាពិ), a kind of fermented shrimp paste is used instead. Cambodian cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups and stir-fried dishes, and as a dipping sauce.
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 (water for sale), mostly into 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 and 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 (ត្រីងៀត) are a favourite with plain rice porridge. 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 is often favoured by more observant Buddhists.
Pork is quite popular in making sweet Khmer sausages known as twah ko (ត្វា រ គោ). Beef and chicken are stewed, grilled or stir fried. Seafood includes an array of shellfish such as clams, cockles, crayfish, prawns 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 be difficult to find in Khmer cuisine abroad but are sometimes used in Cambodia. A few Cambodian restaurants have even incorporated tarantulas, fire ants and other arthropods in their dishes. Other than that the consumption of insects is largely a remnant of the Khmer Rouge era.
Many elements of Cambodian noodle dishes were inspired by Chinese and Vietnamese cooking despite maintaining a distinct Khmer variation though prahok is never used with noodle dishes. Rice stick noodles are used in mee katang (មីកា តាំង), which is a Cambodian variation of chǎo fěn with gravy. Unlike the Chinese styled chěo fěn, the noodles are plated under the stir fry beef and vegetables and topped off with scrambled eggs. Kola noodles (មីកុឡា; mee kola) is a vegetarian dish made by the Kola people 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.
Traditionally, Khmer dishes are served on large plates and bowls (in the so-called "family style") and eaten all at once, however, for French-influenced dishes and restaurants serving tourists, divisions into courses may exist. Khmer meals strive to achieve a balance of flavour through the combination of individual dishes, therefore a standard Khmer meal may consist of a sour soup, savoury fish, bitter vegetables and steamed plain rice. Sourness, bitterness and pungency are the flavours preferred by most Cambodians. The misconception that a single dish should balance sweetness, sourness, spiciness and saltiness just like in Thai cuisine is often repeated even by Cambodian culinary instructors, many of whom have been trained in Thailand.
- Kuyteav (គុយទាវ) – This is primarily a classic for breakfast. The rice noodle soup is somewhat similar to the well-known Vietnamese phở. It is usually served with beef (សាច់គោ, seik ko). Pork (សាច់ជ្រូក, seik tschiru) is rarely served with it. The soup is supplemented with some vegetables and a lettuce leaf. You can get them in the countless street restaurants. For three quarters of a dollar this is a good start to the day. Outside Cambodia, kuyteav is the signature dish of the award-winning Cambodian American restaurant Nyum Bai in Oakland, California.
- Num banchok (នំបញ្ចុក) – the soup consists of lightly-fermented rice noodles in a coconut sauce. Added to this are vegetables and spring onions. If desired, the dish can also be supplemented with chicken or beef.
- Amok (អាម៉ុក) – a Khmer steamed curry served in banana leaves and often considered one of the national dishes of Cambodia. Although traditionally made with certain kinds of fish, modern renditions may also include chicken, beef or even tofu. It is recommended to order it as soon as you sit down in the restaurant because amok should be made on order and can take at least half an hour to be ready. Anything less than that probably means the chef has cut corners. A proper amok's texture should resemble that of a mousse or a souffle and definitely not a soup or even a classic curry. Kethana Dunnet's fish amok from the restaurant Sugar Palm has been featured on the television show Gordon's Great Escape.
- Grilled eggplant with pork (ឆាត្រប់, cha tráp) – chargrilled eggplant topped with a stir-fried mixture of pork, garlic and shallots and garnished with spring onions.
- Lok lak (ឡុកឡាក់) – one of the most common meals in the country is this beef dish. Small pieces of beef are stirfried in a special sauce and arranged over lettuce leaves on a bed of onions and served with steamed rice (or French fries in the tourist version lok lak barang) or a fried egg. The dish comes with a small bowl of lemon juice mixed with black peppers.
- Saik moan ang – chicken is marinated with various spices and grilled.
- Saik ko tirk krote – spicy dish made from roasted beef with fresh salad and a sweet and spicy orange sauce.
- Saiong jayk mien snoul – fried pork and chicken wrapped in banana flowers.
- Salor kari sap – vegetarian curry with tofu, eggplant, potatoes and lemongrass with coconut milk.
- Banana fritters (នំចេកចៀន, num chek chien) — bananas battered in a mixture of rice flour, sesame seeds, egg whites and coconut milk. Cambodian banana fritters are generally more savoury than sweet. They are a very popular street food sold at stalls all over Cambodia and generally eaten at noon or after meals. A famous banana fritter shop in Phnom Penh is Chek Chean Pises ('Special Fried Banana') which has been operating since 2000 and has two locations in the city – at Mao Tse Tong Boulevard and Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. Cambodian restaurants often serve more lavish versions of banana fritters with different sauces, garnishes, ice creams and fresh fruit.
- Chive cakes (នំកាឆាយវៃ, num kachay) — popular street food of Chinese origin made from a mixture of glutinous rice flour, tapioca flour, chopped chives and garlic moulded into a flat dumpling shape and fried in oil in a large pan. They are sold by hawkers on bicycles and in roadside eateries and seerved with sweet spicy fish sauce.
- Num pao (នំប៉ាវ) — Chinese Cambodian variety of the baozi steamed buns with filling; a popular street snack in Cambodian cities.
- Num pang (នំបុ័ង) — French-influenced sandwich consisting of a buttered baguette filled with meat and salad. It is often sold by hawkers in urban areas and eaten as a lunch or early evening snack.
- Prawn cakes (កំពិសចៀន, kompis chean) — another popular street food snack made from a mixture of rice flour and prawns fried in oil in a pan and eaten freshly fried by dipping in a mixture of lime juice, ground black pepper and salt.
The essential ingredients in most Cambodian desserts are sticky rice, rice flour, tapioca flour, coconut cream or milk and palm sugar, but a wide variety of fruit, legumes, roots and vegetables are also used, including some ingredients generally not associated with desserts by many Westerners, such as potatoes, corn, taro, kidney beans, and black-eyed beans. As many Cambodians do not have ovens, most desserts are either steamed or boiled. They are not only eaten after a meal but also as snacks in between meals.
- Sticky rice in bamboo (ក្រឡាន, kralan) is a common street food pre-dating the Khmer Empire often sold in roadside stalls. Sticky rice is mixed with black-eyed peas or beans, coconut milk, grated coconut and palm sugar and roasted in bamboo tubes over a fire for around 90 minutes. It is often eaten at Chinese and Khmer New Year. Famous for its sticky rice in bamboo is Kratie province, where a road straddling Sot Nikum and Prasat Bakong districts along National Road 6 has the biggest concentration of different kralan vendors and has been nicknamed "kralan road". There the price for sticky rice in bamboo can range from 1,500 to 3,000 riels per piece depending on the size of the bamboo tube.
- Coconut waffles (នំពុម្ព, num poum) is another very popular street food. Although originating in the French Indochina period, the use of rice flour, coconut and palm sugar give it a distinctly Southeast Asian twist. Depending on the shape of the mould used, they are either round or rectangular. They are usually eaten on their own without any sauces or toppings.
Almost everywhere in the towns, there are small local or mobile stands that offer food and drinks. The choice is diverse. From fruit to baguettes to fried noodles or baked or fried delicacies to coffee or sugarcane juice. For a few riel, you can get something to satisfy your hunger and thirst on almost every corner.
In many places, you will find simple restaurants typical of the country. What they have in common is a mostly sterile, tiled ambience and a permanently running television. During peak times in the morning and midday, they are usually well frequented by the locals. Cutlery and standard condiments such as chilli jam, pickled green chillies, sugar, garlic flakes, fish sauce and soy sauce are on the table. A pot of simple tea is usually included free of charge. The Cambodian custom of throwing all rubbish on the floor is rather unfamiliar to Europeans. After mealtimes, such a restaurant is littered with used paper napkins. As a result, the rather sober tile ambience pays off. In a minute the floors are swept and they are ready for the next guests.
Cambodians don't attach much importance to a stylish ambience. The large restaurants are more like a train station concourse. An important part of such a restaurant is the stage for live music and karaoke. Dinner is not complete without entertainment. The rather large number of employees is striking. In this way, you are generally looked after throughout your visit. After just a few sips, the glasses are refilled with beer and ice. The range of dishes is quite large. Fish, pork, beef, chicken or frog. It's usually all on sale. Also the Cambodian barbecue.
Siem Reap is the centre of contemporary Khmer cuisine, where you can find many large fine-dining restaurants, such as The Sugar Palm, Malis, Embassy, Mie Cafe, Mahob Khmer, Cuisine Wat Damnak, Spoons, Chanrey Tree, Marum, Chong Phov Khmer Restaurant, and Por Cuisine.
In the well-known cities, there is also a wide range of restaurants offering Western cuisine. Many of these restaurants have a standard selection of dishes. You will always find a few typical Khmer dishes (such as amok and lok lak), sandwiches, pizza, pasta and a few meat dishes on the menu. If you are looking for something outside of this standard offer, you will not find it so quickly. There are a number of good specialty restaurants in Phnom Penh ranging from the more classic French and Italian restaurants to more recent Japanese and Korean restaurants. However, these restaurants are not always located at tourist hot spots. In Siem Reap, you can find a few on Pub Street and Walking Alley.