10 meals every visitor to Cambodia should try
Squished between culinary heavyweights Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is often overlooked when it comes to food. But once you’ve sampled Khmer cuisine, you won’t turn back.
Here are 10 dishes to start you off.
Bai sach chrouk: Pork and rice
Served early mornings on street corners all over Cambodia, bai sach chrouk, or pork and rice, is one of the simplest and most delicious dishes the country has to offer.
Thinly sliced pork is slow grilled over warm coals to bring out its natural sweetness. Sometimes the pork will be marinated in coconut milk or garlic — no two bai sach chrouks are ever exactly the same.
The grilled pork is served over a hearty portion of broken rice, with a helping of freshly pickled cucumbers and daikon radish with plenty of ginger.
On the side, you’ll often be given a bowl of chicken broth topped with scallions and fried onions.
Fish amok is one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes, but you’ll find similar meals in neighboring countries.
The addition of slok ngor, a local herb that imparts a subtly bitter flavor, separates the Cambodian version from the pack.
Fish amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, or Chinese ginger.
Khmer red curry
Less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand, Khmer red curry is similarly coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili.
The dish features beef, chicken or fish, eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass and kroeung.
This delicious dish is usually served at special occasions in Cambodia such as weddings, family gatherings and religious holidays like Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, where Cambodians make the dish to share with monks in honor of the departed.
Khmer red curry is usually served with bread — a remnant of the French influence on Cambodia.
At upscale restaurants fish amok is steamed in a banana leaf, while more local places serve a boiled version that is more like a soupy fish curry than a mousse.
Lap Khmer: Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad
Khmer beef salad features thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or “cooked” ceviche-style by marinating with lime juice.
Dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans and green pepper, the sweet and salty dish also packs a punch in the heul (spicy) department with copious amounts of fresh red chilis.
A refreshing dish that is more beef than salad, lap Khmer is popular with Cambodian men, who prefer the beef to be nearly raw — but at restaurants it’s generally served grilled.
Nom banh chok: Khmer noodles
Nom banh chok is a beloved Cambodian dish, so much so that in English it’s called simply “Khmer noodles.”
Nom banh chok is a typical breakfast food, and you’ll find it sold in the mornings by women carrying it on baskets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders.
The dish consists of noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime.
Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower, cucumbers and other greens are heaped on top. There is also a red curry version that’s usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities.
Kdam chaa: fried crab
Fried crab is a specialty of the Cambodian seaside town of Kep. Its lively crab market is known for fried crab prepared with green, locally grown Kampot pepper.
Aromatic Kampot pepper is famous among gourmands worldwide, and although it is available in its dried form internationally, you’ll only be able to sample the distinctively flavored immature green peppercorns in Cambodia.
It’s worth a visit to Kep and Kampot for that alone, but Phnom Penh restaurants bring live crabs in from the coast to make their own version of this delicious dish, which includes both Kampot pepper and flavorful garlic chives.
Red tree ants with beef and holy basil
You’ll find all sorts of insects on the menu in Cambodia. Tarantulas included.
But the dish most appealing to foreign palates is stir-fried red tree ants with beef and holy basil.
Ants of various sizes, some barely visible and others almost an inch long are stir-fried with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and thinly sliced beef.
Lots of chilies complete the aromatic dish, without overpowering the delicate sour flavor that the ants impart to the beef.
This meal is served with rice, and if you’re lucky you’ll also get a portion of ant larvae in your bowl.
Ang dtray-meuk: grilled squid
In Cambodian seaside towns like Sihanoukville and Kep, you’ll find seafood sellers carrying small charcoal-burning ovens on their shoulders, cooking the squid as they walk along the shore.
The squid are brushed with either lime juice or fish sauce and then barbecued on wooden skewers and served with a popular Cambodian sauce, originally from Kampot, made from garlic, fresh chilies, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar.
The summer flavor of the shore can be had even in Phnom Penh, where many restaurants bring seafood from the coast to make similar versions of this dish.
Cha houy teuk — jelly dessert
After school in Phnom Penh, young people crowd around street stands serving Khmer desserts for 1,000 riel, about US$0.25.
Some have sticky rice or sago drenched in coconut milk and topped with taro, red beans, pumpkin and jackfruit.
One of the most refreshing is cha houy teuk, a sweet jelly dessert made with agar agar, a gelatin that is derived from seaweed.
The jelly can be brightly colored in pinks and greens, making it especially popular with children.
Combined with sago, bleached mung beans and coconut cream, cha houy teuk is usually served in a bowl with a scoop of shaved ice.
Fried fish on the fire lake
Fresh coconut milk isn’t used in every day Khmer cooking. Instead it’s saved for dishes served at special occasions.
Fried Fish on the Fire Lake is one such dish — it’s traditionally made for parties or eaten at restaurants in a special, fish-shaped dish.
A whole fish is deep-fried and then finished on a hotplate at the table in a coconut curry made from yellow kroeung and chilies.
Vegetables such as cauliflower and cabbage are cooked in the curry, and served with rice or rice noodles. The literal translation of this dish is trei bung kanh chhet, fish from the lake of kanh chhet, a green Cambodian water vegetable served with this dish.