Cambodia was an important crossroads on the ancient Maritime Silk Road that connected India and China via modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia. This is why visitors discover so many diverse flavours blended into its unique culinary palette, ranging from aromatic curries to fresh spring rolls with a sprinkling of Gallic influence along the way.
Freshwater fish makes up a significant element of the Cambodian diet thanks to the natural phenomenon that is the Tonlé Sap lake, the largest in South-East Asia. Together with the Mekong River, the endless waterways of the kingdom deliver a bountiful catch that is fermented into prahoc (fish paste), a vital ingredient of many regional dishes. This is complemented by a creative combination of earthy roots, holistic herbs and aromatic tubers that give the soups, salads and stews their unique twist, distinct from the culinary heavyweights of Thailand and Vietnam.
Rice is the main staple of the national diet and Cambodia’s Malys Angkor fragrant rice has won the World’s Best Rice award several times in the past decade. Rice is so central to the diet that it gives us the Khmer word for ‘eating’: nyam bai, or literally ‘eat rice’.
Sitting down to a Cambodian meal, guests should be aware that it almost always includes a samlor (traditional soup), intended to be shared communally, along with the other principal plates. Samlor mcheu kreung (a subtle sour and spicy soup with pork ribs) is popular, as is the divine tuk kreung, almost a dipping stew to feast on with fresh vegetables.
1. Wok-fried crab with pepper Kep is famous for its succulent crab and Kampot is renowned for its aromatic pepper. Put the two together at Crab Market in Kep and you have one of Cambodia’s most delectable dishes. Kampot pepper has a UNESCO Geographical Indication like Champagne in France and it is prized for its unique flavour. Try the fresh green peppercorns or the ground black pepper – both complement the crab to perfection. Kep’s Sailing Club is a popular sunset spot or go local with a visit to Kimly Restaurant in Crab Market.
2. Naom ben chok noodles These thin, hand-made rice noodles are like vermicelli and are served with a fragrant fish broth or a deep red curry with chicken and sweet potatoes. The garnish is a work of art and comes with everything from banana blossom to lotus root and includes a selection of edible flowers such as the purple water hyacinth. Try this dish in the village of Preah Dak, about 16km from Siem Reap, on the road to the temple of Banteay Srei.
3. Fish amok Arguably the stand-out candidate for a national dish of Cambodia, fish amok is an aromatic mild curry steamed in banana leaf. The subtle blend of flavours comes from the kreung (paste) combination of herbs and spices that is key to Khmer cuisine and includes lemongrass, garlic, shallots, turmeric, galangal, lime leaves and a hint of chilli. Malis Restaurant in Phnom Penh, owned by celebrity chef Luu Meng (who’s cooked with everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Anthony Bourdain), serves a beautifully presented trio of amok.
4. Bobor porridge This rice-based porridge is the closest thing to a must-have breakfast in Cambodia, but can be a healthy meal at any time. Plain bobor is flavoured with dried fish and pickles; more inviting is fish or chicken bobor with additions such as vegetables, dried garlic or pickled ginger. Find it in local markets for less than a pound a bowl.
5. Pomelo salad with freshwater shrimp Kratie is a somnolent town on the Mekong that draws visitors to spot rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Opposite the town lies the island of Koh Trong, a rural idyll known for its pomelo orchards. Visit a homestay or restaurant to sample fresh pomelo salad with Mekong shrimp, a popular delicacy found all over Cambodia and the perfect complement to a bubbling curry or soup.
Did you know? Eating insects is set to be the next big thing in sustainable food. However, Cambodia is already leading the way in creepy-crawly cuisine – deep-fried tarantulas are a speciality, as well as wok-fried beef with basil and red tree ants. Anyone for crickets? There are plenty of those too, the perfect snack to go with a draft Angkor or Cambodia beer.
Find out more about Cambodian cuisine by watching this video: