Jul 26 2011

Cambodian food basics

Published by at 2:04 pm under Food & drink


Much maligned as the unsavoury cousin of spicier and more glamorous Thai food, real Cambodian cooking is unfortunately under-appreciated by many visitors to Cambodia, although this is hardly their fault. Among the reasons is their simple lack of awareness. “People are familiar with Vietnamese food, Chinese food and Thai,” says French chef Joannès Rivière. “But Cambodian food is not so well known in the west so people are not sure what to look for when they come here.”

Cambodian food uses what's local and what's in season.

Cambodian food uses what's local and what's in season.

Rivière, former executive chef at the Hotel de la Paix and author of the book Cambodian Cooking, now runs Cuisine Wat Damnak, which he has dedicated to bringing genuine Cambodian cooking and ingredients to diners.

He says that many of the dishes that are considered classically “Cambodian” are not really even Cambodian at all. “Lok lak is actually a Vietnamese dish, and the rich noodle soup traditionally taken for breakfast is originally Chinese, but can be found all over the region too.”

Rivière recalls a conversation that he had with Australian chef David Thompson, a Michelin starred chef and expert on Thai food. “He told me that seeing Cambodian food today, it is a little like Thai food 30 years ago. Thai food has been refined since then.  Today, it is sweeter, and uses more meat and coconut milk than before.”

It is also less driven by seasonality than Cambodian food still is today. With a less developed economy and infrastructure, Cambodians still rely on what they can find around them. “The essence of Cambodian food is its seasonality. A good, typical Cambodian meal is grilled fish, with lots of fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits that are actually in season.”

Like Thai food, the aim is to introduce the different flavours of sweet, sour and salty, though less of the spicy. With Cambodian food however, these flavours are often introduced through the range of dishes on offer and not necessarily within the individual dishes themselves.

Of course, for restaurants that are catering to large numbers the constant change that that implies is simply not possible and this is the main reason why tourists are not exposed to Cambodian cooking as Cambodians experience it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, and Cuisine Wat Damnak is one place to start.

In Cambodian food, the most common spices and flavourings are lime juice, fish sauce, fish paste (prahok), kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, garlic, lemon grass, and tamarind. And the most common dish that visitors will encounter is the renowned Cambodian fish amok, with its rich, coconut milk base. You’ll find this being served in restaurants all over town though, but according to Rivière, the best one in all of Siem Reap is to be found at The Sugar Palm restaurant on Ta Phul Road.

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16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Cambodian food basics”

  1. […] Going further east, at the very southern end of Wat Bo Road, is Green Star, which was set up last year to help support the Green Gecko, another genuinely excellent NGO that works with street children in Siem Reap. This is much more Khmer style, with simple décor and dishes including snake and frogs' legs if you’re feeling up to it. They also serve staples such as a good chicken and cashew, noodles and grilled beef with lime and pepper (an insanely good Khmer speciality). […]

  2. […] of the most rewarding ways of exploring another culture is through tasting their food; the different textures, flavours, uses of abundant or scarce ingredients, ingredients you’ve […]

  3. […] tuck into a sweet and piquant and highly addictive spicy green mango salad, which is a core dish in Cambodian cooking, and a stand-alone rebuttal to the charge that Cambodian food is dull. Alternatively, try slices of […]

  4. […] touching a single surface with anything other than the toe of my shoe. And I've learned that Cambodian food is not just dumbed down Thai food. There may be trouble ahead […]

  5. […] restaurant specialises in north Cambodian folk cuisine and it's the perfect place to explore Khmer food beyond amok and lok lak. To help you on your way, the menu includes an explanation of some of the […]

  6. […] the rain is not actually that big a deal unless in taking shelter you find yourself stuck in a prahok factory or, worse, stuck with one of those people that Southeast Asia attracts in droves: the drunk […]

  7. […] a random street; more gorgeous scenery in richly saturated colours; more soft, silken fabrics, more aromatic dishes; more smiles, and, okay, perhaps less of the clanging from the pagoda at five in the morning, but […]

  8. […] Cambodian food does get a bit of a bad rap compared to its neighbours, for numerous reasons of varying soundness, and it can seem incongruous therefore to even associate the words "posh", "Khmer" and "nosh" (a bit like trying to think of snazzy Welsh food), but associate them you can, and the rewards for doing so in Siem Reap are rich indeed. Cafe Moi Moi. […]

  9. […] restaurant menu is huge and covers both traditional Khmer and Western food, including Australian steaks. It’s not the cheapest in town but the food is […]

  10. […] stalls and restaurants. If you want to stay for lunch, restaurant menus include all the usual Khmer rice and noodle staples, and although prices were listed from $5 upwards, on my recent visit we were instantly offered […]

  11. […] served here, or on the adjacent poolside terrace from 07:00. Evening meals are also available with Khmer mains from $3.50 and various Western dishes including roast pork chop or chicken cordon bleu for $4.50. […]

  12. […] Khmer dishes on the extensive menu include banana blossom salad, noodle soup and loc-lac – stir fried meat with a rich gravy, lime juice and freshly ground pepper — all at $4, and fried morning glory (or water spinach) at $3. Many dishes can be ordered with a choice of chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp, vegetables or tofu making it a good place for picky eaters, vegetarians and carnivores to eat side by side. The only caveat for vegetarians is that there’s a strong chance the same cooking pots are used for everything. […]

  13. […] So if you like to support responsible tourism, are looking for a relaxed, more intimate cooking class that will get you out of Siem Reap, into the countryside, and leave you feeling like you may never need to eat again, then you will probably love this course. One final tip: portions are copious as well as delicious so don’t book a table for dinner in town if you are taking the afternoon class, unless you really think you have the willpower to resist your very own Khmer culinary masterpiece. […]

  14. […] meals throughout the day ranging from a plate of fries at $1.75 to burgers at $3 and a choice of traditional Khmer dishes from just $2.75. Free tea, coffee and fresh fruit are available all day in reception. If you want […]

  15. […] Khmer food can be a bit of a mystery for travellers — Thai and Vietnamese cuisine has penetrated around the world, while Cambodian menus still have limited exposure. Which means that a visit to Cambodia allows for plenty of food adventures, but it can be difficult to know what to choose. If there’s one dish that you shouldn’t leave without trying, it’s the creamily wonderful fish amok (amok trei). […]

  16. […] but a local pizzeria delivers for free with a range of pizzas from $3 up and a small selection of traditional Khmer dishes from $1.50 for fresh or fried spring rolls to $3.50 for a prawn tom yam soup with rice. A full, […]

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