Last Update: August 2020
It is often said that Cambodian cuisine, or Khmer cuisine as we say, is underrated. And it’s true, while Thai and Vietnamese food are conquering the world, Khmer cuisine is rarely heard of. When was the last time you dined in a Cambodian restaurant or picked up some Khmer food for take-away? Exactly!
Is it because Thailand and Vietnam are major tourist destinations? Maybe travelers exposed to the local food bring back a craving for the exotic dishes when they return home. Or is it because there are less Cambodian migrants to introduce Khmer food in the West through the opening of restaurants? Does it even matter?
I guess it doesn’t, but you should know that Khmer cuisine influenced modern day Thai and Vietnamese cuisine more than the other way around. From the 8th until the 15th century the great Khmer empire included major parts of Thailand and Vietnam.
I put together a list of 7 ingredients that define Khmer cuisine, many of which are also used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Now you know why.
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1. Rice (Bai)
Maybe you’re wondering why I put rice here? Rice isn’t an ingredient you might say. But it is! It’s true that Cambodians eat rice at least three times per day, but not necessarily in its original form.
Apart from being the staple food, rice is used to make rice noodles, which are the basis for many favorite dishes like mee char (fried noodles), nom banh chok and kuy teav (both noodle soups). Also, rice flour is used to make dough and batter for many desserts and snacks.
Ok, maybe rice as an ingredient is questionable, but the importance to Khmer cuisine is evident. So I thought to include it in the list. And it’s my list.
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2. Prahok (Prahok)
The fermented fish paste is probably the most distinctive ingredient in Khmer cooking. Often despised by Westerners, because of the pungent fishy smell and taste, prahok is the main ingredient that provides real depth of flavor to Khmer food.
Fish is cleaned, ground and left out in the sun for a day. Next, the paste is salted and kept in barrels for at least one month. Quality and flavor are said to improve by ageing the paste up to three years.
Prahok is sometimes mixed with lime and eaten as a dip or cooked/fried with steamed rice. The most common use however is to add it to several dishes as a seasoning, much like fish sauce in Thailand and Vietnam or shrimp paste in Indonesia.
Two types of basil are used in Khmer cooking, Thai basil (chi nang vorng) and Holy basil (chi m’rash prov). The taste of Thai basil is close to Italian basil, but stronger and with more anise aroma.
Thai basil is often used in soups and salads, mostly served as a side dish together with assorted green leaf herbs to add at the last moment. Cooking will reduce the fragrance and ruin the texture.
Holy basil is slightly more sweet and more firm. It actually needs heat to release the full aroma, so it’s commonly used in stir fry dishes with pork or chicken.
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Galangal is a rhizome, which is a fancy word for the part of a plant growing underground, not being the root or a bulb. It looks very much like ginger but is different in taste. It kind of tastes like pine and menthol and is slightly peppery.
Slices of galangal are used to season broths and soups. The slices are hard and can not be eaten, they just give their aroma to the soup. The main use for galangal in Cambodia is to pound it in a mortar with other spices into a kroeung (Cambodian curry paste). In fact, galangal is essential to kroeung and can not be substituted with something else.
5. Ginger (Chnay)
Another rhizome and very famous throughout South East Asia and even the world for that matter. I guess we all know the taste of ginger as it’s so commonly used nowadays, light sweet, flowery and peppery.
One of the many qualities of ginger is that it’s able to suppress fishiness and the strong flavors of goat and mutton. As a result, ginger is often used in seafood dishes and meat stews.
Ginger is also used in various stir fry dishes with chicken, beef and pork to add more zing. Another quality of ginger is the many alleged medicinal properties.
6. Turmeric (Romeat)
Next to galangal and ginger, this is the third rhizome in our list of “7 Ingredients that define Khmer cuisine”. And just like galangal, turmeric is indispensable for making kroeung, especially the yellow kroeung.
I find it very hard to describe the taste. Fresh turmeric is strong, but yet it’s not. It has a slightly bitter taste, with hints of ginger, orange maybe, but at the same time it’s peppery and earthy.
Anyway, it’s very aromatic and therefore also used in stews. The color of turmeric is orange and just a little bit will color your whole dish. Be careful not to stain, as it will be almost impossible to remove.
7. Lemongrass (Kuel Skey)
Lemongrass has a prominent place in the Cambodian kitchen. The aromatic grass full of citric oils is the third main ingredient in this list to make kroeung. It is chopped up to make the fibrous stalk more digestible and besides kroeung it is added to stir fry dishes or to marinade grilled meat.
The leaves can be used to make tea or to infuse soups. Sometimes lemongrass is also available in powdered form, but compared to fresh stems the aroma loses a lot of its power.
More ingredients in Khmer cuisine
I know there are many more ingredients that are used in Khmer cuisine. In fact, as you can imagine, the list is endless. Herbs and spices like mint, star anise, neem, cilantro, kaffir lime, shallots, fingerroot, cardamom and black/green/chili peppers are all important to Khmer cooking.
The same goes for tamarind, coconut, palm sugar, red ants and the list goes on. So many herbs, spices and ingredients that are used for distinctive flavoring. It is however, a “7 ingredients that define Khmer cuisine” and not a 100 ingredients list…bummer.
Next time you’re in Cambodia and you really want to taste a variety of Khmer food, but don’t have a lot of time, you should try my “Phnom Penh Food Crawl”.
Which South East Asian cuisine do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.