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.”
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.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
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