Cambodian food basics

Cambodian food basics

A primer

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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.

Travelfish says:

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.

Contact details for Cambodian food basics

Reviewed by

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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Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Siem Reap

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Abacus

A real treat

 

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Angkor Cafe

Flash Angkor option

 

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Angkor What?

The original bar

 

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Best coffee joints

Go for hot and steamy

 

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Best happy hours

Sip in affordable style

 

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Breakfasts

Start the day like a king

 

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Cafe Central

Classy for a meal or chill-out

 

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Cafe Indochine

Romance and great food

 

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Chamkar

Cosy and friendly

 

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Champey

Fine Khmer food

 

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Cuisine Wat Damnak

Amazing

 

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Fancy Cambodian food

Upmarket local fare

 

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FCC Angkor

Refreshing escape

 

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French restaurants

Wine, cheese and more

 

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Garden restaurants

Food with a view of sorts

 

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Gelato Lab

Can't beat it

 

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Haven Training Restaurant

An outstanding meal for a good cause

 

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Hawaii Pizza House

More than pizza

 

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Il Forno

Superstar Italiano

 

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International food

A wrap

 

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Italian restaurants

Fantastic

 

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Ivy 2

Vegetarians and tapas lovers' delight

 

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Joe to Go

Generous proportions, reasonable prices

 

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Khmer Kitchen

Always tasty

 

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La Boulangerie

Great breakfasts and salads

 

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La Cabane La Cuisine des Filles

Honest French food

 

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Laundry Bar

Get all washed up

 

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Le Triskell d'Angkor

For a little Gallic twist

 

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Linga Bar

Classy and gay-friendly

 

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Maharajah

Typical Indian fare

 

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Marum

A worthy splurge

 

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Mexican food

You're a long way from Matzalan

 

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Miss Wong

Funky

 

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Mr Grill

Sizzling

 

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NGO restaurants

Fill up and help out

 

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Peace Cafe

Vegetarian hit

 

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Picasso

Tapas

 

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Pub quiz mania

Exercise your noodle

 

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Rooftop bars

Plenty to see

 

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Sister Srey Cafe

Superb coffee

 

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Street food

Great value eats

 

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Supermarkets

The practical stuff

 

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Tapas

Finger-lickin' good

 

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The Hive

Cool respite, Western food

 

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The Indian

Cracking Indian food

 

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The Old House

Good value Khmer food with class

 

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The Sugar Palm

Best amok in town

 

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Vegetarian food

A bit of a challenge

 

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Wine

The bucket is for the ice

 

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X-Bar

Great rooftop