Last Update: September 2022
When was the last time you ate Cambodian food? Exactly, unless you’re actually in Cambodia, real Cambodian food or ‘Khmer food’ as we say is very hard to come by. Some of the flavors are similar to Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, but so many are not. Khmer cuisine definitely has its own identity with unique and very approachable dishes. Well, most of them are. Here is an overview of 13 must eat Cambodian food that every foodie must try.
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Fish Amok (Amok Trey)
First on our list of “13 must eat Cambodian food” also happens to be the national dish of Cambodia. Not surprising, it’s fish based. About 80% of the Cambodian protein intake is derived from the rivers, the Tonle Sap lake and the sea.
In my Phnom Penh days I ordered Amok Trey all the time. Unfortunately not every restaurant passed the test. I don’t mind the short cuts, because I am well aware of the time/labor intensity to prepare this dish. I do mind however, that sometimes an essential ingredient is left out. Sure, noni leaves are hard to come by, but you shouldn’t prepare, let alone sell Amok Trey if you don’t have the ingredients complete. It’s like selling pizza without cheese.
Traditional Amok Trey has a wonderful soft and smooth texture with that hint of Asian spice. It’s rich, refined and considered a Royal Khmer dish dating back as far as the Khmer Empire (802-1431). min.
Freshwater fish is stirred with kroeung, chili, fish sauce, egg, palm sugar, salt and coconut cream into a coarse mash. The mixture is placed on top of shredded noni leaves in a banana leaf basket and carefully steamed for at least 30min.
The not so traditional and quicker way is to just stir fry diced fish together with the kroeung, coconut milk and the other ingredients. Believe me when I say it’s still good! As long as they use proper fish and include the noni leaves that is. Drizzle a generous amount of coconut cream on top and eat it while it’s hot.
Cambodia’s favorite, Beef Lok Lak is basically a diced up steak marinated in soy sauce, paprika, tomato sauce and fish sauce. The stir fried beef is served on top of green lettuce with fresh sliced tomato and onion. Lime/salt/pepper dip on the side is essential.
Beef Lok Lak can be served either with steamed rice or French fries. It’s best with a fried egg on top, as it’s supposed to, but sometimes they “forget” and you have to ask for it. I guess it’s not too hard to see the French connection with Khmer cuisine in this dish and it’s actually an excellent “cross-over”, between East and West.
The use of high quality steak is obvious for a good Beef Lok Lak, you don’t want to chew on your meat forever. Unfortunately, affordable quality beef is rare in Cambodia so always be on the look-out for insider restaurant recommendations and be prepared to pay a little extra.
Also referred to as ‘Khmer noodles’, because it’s literally everywhere in Cambodia. This dish is extremely popular and I suspect the Khmer of eating Nom Banh Chok at least once every day. A bowl filled with silky soft rice noodles is topped with green fish curry gravy. The green color comes from kaffir lime, lemongrass and turmeric root. Load up a bunch of crispy fresh vegetables and herbs to complete the dish.
We ate some of the best Nom Banh Chok at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium. It’s where the locals gather for leisure and sports activities in the evening. Some just sit in the grass to enjoy the cooler temperatures. Others join in group exercise like aerobics, shuttle cock football, tai chi or dancing. We even saw a belly dance class practicing there.
Wherever Cambodian people gather, there’s food and at the Stadium they’ve set up a whole array of food stalls with front row seats to watch the dance classes. Great food and entertainment, enjoy!
‘Kroeung’ (curry paste from turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, garlic and shallots) is used as the basis for Cambodian curry. Similar to Thai curry, coconut milk is used to smoothen and sweeten the dish. The Khmer version however, is much milder than her Thai sister and some might even call it bland. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from adding a few extra chilies yourself.
Originally made with chicken, but nowadays also with beef, fish or even duck. Served with either steamed rice, noodles or, oh shocker!, French baguette for dipping.
Pork over rice, it sounds so simple, but man is this good!
Succulent pork is marinated in coconut milk and garlic and then caramelized over a charcoal fire. Tradition dictates that Bai Sach Chrouk is served over steamed broken rice with cucumber and pickles on the side, as well as a bowl of clear chicken broth. The best versions also have an egg sunny side up on top.
This is a typical Khmer breakfast, rich in protein to get you through the day. Venture out to the street food stalls along the markets early morning and join the locals for a shoulder to shoulder breakfast.
Not for the fainthearted, because of the pungent smell and scorching heat!
It’s basically a dip from ground pork with a fair amount of fermented fish paste (prahok). The smells of the latter are known to evoke images of a badly sanitized fish market. Kind of in the same way that the smell of French cheese may remind you of a farm stable. However, once you learn to appreciate prahok you will find that it adds real depth and complexity to Cambodian cooking.
Cambodian curry paste (kroeung), coconut milk, tamarind, peas and lot’s and lot’s of chilies are added to complete the dip. Prahok Ktiss is served with fresh vegetables for dipping and sufficient Angkor beers to extinguish the blaze.
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Once introduced by the French colonists, Khmer cuisine has taken the baguette to a whole new level. Street food carts and small sandwich shops all over Cambodia serve their crunchy baguettes that have become a real local staple.
Stuffed with anything that can fit inside, but typically with different kinds of seasoned meats accompanied by crispy pickles and fresh vegetables. Think of lemongrass meatballs, char siu, beef teriyaki and buffalo roasted chicken (drool) to name just a few of my favorites.
Of course, the traditional French paté also remains ever so popular.
In any case, fact is that nowadays tarantulas are a delicacy in Cambodia. Next to street stalls, many restaurants also have them on the regular menu. Fried with chili and garlic the tarantula is crispy on the outside and soft warm, almost liquid inside. Yum!
This list of 13 must eat Cambodian food would not be complete without Kuy Teav. In fact, many countries in South East Asia and beyond have a variation of this dish and they all claim to have invented it. It’s noodle soup!
The base is always flat rice noodles in a pork or beef broth. Depending on the establishment they throw in anything from seafood and fish balls to bean sprouts and spring onions.
The broth is often strong in fragrance, but usually bland in taste. So, spice up your own bowl with typical condiments like chili sauce, fish sauce, garlic, lime and a bunch of fresh green herbs and vegetables.
Crab with Kampot Pepper
One can eat crab just about anywhere in Cambodia. The best place however is the crab market in beach town Kep. Choose your crab from baskets in the sea where they are kept and have them cooked up for you right then and there.
You know you want them prepared with the famous pepper from neighboring Kampot. Crab and Kampot pepper are a match made in heaven. They are like popcorn and butter, apple and pie, yin and….uh well, you get it. Now get your butt over to Kep.
The Khmer answer to Chinese hotpot is immensely popular seeing the numerous restaurants that offer this dish. Large groups of families, friends and co-workers gather around the clear broth on small stoves and chuck in whatever they like. Meats, fish, vegetables, mushroom, tofu or eggs, anything goes. Not only delicious, but also a lot of fun.
Cambodian “Yao Hon” is a rather nice and popular variety to Chhnang Plerng where a significant amount of coconut milk is added to the broth.
Read: “Phnom Penh food crawl“ Insider tips on where to eat in Phnom Penh.
Time for dessert! Sankya Lapov in Khmer or Sankaya in Thai is a true feast for the eye and taste buds. A custard made of eggs, palm sugar and coconut milk inside a pumpkin and then steamed to perfection.
Rumor has it that the Portuguese introduced this dessert to Thailand back in the 1600’s and from there it made its way to Cambodia. Obrigada Portugal!
I trust you have heard of the King of fruits. Even if you’ve never tasted it you’re sure to have smelled it at some time in South East Asia. The Kampot province in the South of Cambodia is renowned for its durian fruit and Cambodians are really proud of it.
It’s not cheap at $4-$5 per kilo, which is more than a half day’s minimum wage in Cambodia, but durian fanatics instantly recognize the quality. And as long as you’re trying durian for the first time, why not start with the best?
More than 13 must-eat Cambodian food
Yes, there’s more! Street side snacking is a way of life in Cambodia so what about all the Khmer snacks that are sold at the ubiquitous street food stands?
There’s Chek Chien, ripe bananas dipped in sweet batter and then crispy fried. Best to eat while it’s piping hot. If you’re on a sugar crave then how about some Nom Kong? Light and fluffy donuts that are sugar dusted, honey glazed or covered in caramelized palm sugar. You’ll be licking your fingers and keep coming back for more.
Or one of my favorites, Green Mango Salad, because it’s so refreshing in the Cambodian heat. That said, the chilies can easily make you break out in a sweat. And then there’s Twa ko, sometimes called Kwah ko, Cambodian homemade sausage from beef or pork and various spices.
So, that rounds up my list of 13+ must eat Cambodian food. Feeling hungry yet? What other dishes should be in this list? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.
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