As a Chef I have to try as many dishes as I can from every country I visit, or at least that’s my excuse to eating everything in sight. Cambodian food isn’t as famous as the local cuisine of its nearby neighbours, but don’t discount the food of Cambodia, this little country with a war-torn past has a lot to offer. Whilst in Cambodia we tried all the new foods we could find from lok lak to fish amok. We sampled Cambodian street food and took Khmer cookery courses in between touring the food markets of every town we visited. It was a fascinating culinary adventure. So here for you, our ultimate guide to Cambodian and Khmer food, for absolute beginners.
Cambodian Food, a guide to the Top Khmer Dishes
Bai Sach Chrouk (BBQ Pork and Rice)
A traditional breakfast dish, it’s so popular that finding it after 9am is quite the challenge. The pork is either lightly grilled or in some cases marinated in lemon to ‘cook’ it ceviche style. Served on rice and with condiments of pickled cucumber, daikon and heaps of ginger. When I’ve eaten all the parts together it has a taste hard to match. Cambodian chefs all have their own way and recipe for making this dish so you won’t find two the same anywhere.
Lok lak is a stir fry dish, made from marinated beef and served with cucumber, tomato and rice. The beef is marinated in lime, pepper, fish sauce, soy sauce and occasionally oyster sauce. More traditional serving is with the strips of seared beef wrapped in the lettuce and drizzled with lime and pepper. Lok lak is a dish you can replicate wherever you are in the world as all the ingredients are easily acquired in any country. Sometimes chicken or fish is substituted for the beef.
Perhaps the most famous of all of Cambodia’s foods. This mousse-like fish dish is a delight to eat. Steamed in a banana leaf with kroeung, a Cambodian curry paste. The finished product is a flavour infused delicate mousse not a piece of fish. The Kroeung is a mix of lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, or Chinese ginger which gives the Amok the excellent flavour.
Nom Banh Chok (Khmer Noodles)
Very much a street food, this is served by women who carry everything around in huge baskets. They will happily load up your bowl with the noodles and then top it with as many condiments as you like. These toppings include thinly sliced and chopped vegetables and generous amounts of herbs such as Thai basil and coriander . The finishing touch is the lemongrass flavoured fish curry that the vendor will ladled on top.
Khmer Red Curry
Similar to the surrounding countries and their curries but without all the punch. Think a massaman curry without the potato and peanuts. Again this uses the Khmer curry paste, Kroeung not the Thai style curry pastes. The flavours are more subtle and it isn’t loaded with chili leaving you needed yet more beer. Chicken is the favoured ingredient for this dish. The most noticeable thing with the curry is the accompaniment. It is more often than not served with bread, a hang over from the days of the French colonization.
I tried and loved the above Cambodian dishes while touring the country. Not a complete list but nearly all travelers will experience these basic dishes as they explore Cambodia. We made a few of these when we did a Cambodian cookery course in Battambang. Admittedly, our usual daily diet in Cambodia leaned more towards fried rice, noodles and omelettes, but the traditional Cambodian food is great when you can find it.