Although far less well-known than the justifiably reputed cuisines of neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam, we reckon the rich and varied Cambodian, or Khmer, cooking more than holds its own amid Southeast Asian fare and local food is generally a serendipitous and tasty discovery on any of our Cambodian tours. Here then is a selection of some of our personal faves as well as what have proven to be the best crowd-pleasers with the emphasis, as usual, on authentic local, rather than more tourist orientated, dishes.
1. Amok trey
Something of a national dish amok receives almost universal acclaim from visitors. It’s a delicately flavoured, coconut-based curry steamed in banana leaves and where an egg is added to the curry sauce to obtain a light, slightly souffle, texture. The classic version is made with fish though chicken or vegetable alternatives are also found. Ha mok is a closely related Thai equivalent but we’re not going to get into any arguments about who invented it first!
If amok is the Cambodian signature dish as far as visitors go then prahok is the dish of choice for locals and is ubiquitous in Khmer cuisine. Prahok – sometimes referred to as Cambodian cheese due to its strong, pungent flavour – is made from fermented fresh-water fish and comes in a variety of forms and styles. The above – prahok chien – is perhaps the most palatable to the uninitiated and consists of a selection of raw vegetables with a spicy minced pork dipping paste. However much visitors may complain about the odour of raw prahok paste in markets the above dish conversely receives zero complaints!
3. Classic Khmer curry
Next up, and another dish that never fails to please, is this classic Khmer curry. Milder and often creamier than a Thai red curry this version is made from a selection of crisp, lightly cooked vegetable chunks with additional fish or meat if required, stewed in a mild coconut milk sauce. The dish is traditionally eaten with either plain rice or French style baguettes. Khmer comfort food and another dish that only ever registers positive feed=back.
4. Saraman curry
Same same but different as they say and another creamy, coconut-based curry is this Khmer, Muslim style dish known as Saraman curry. Taste is substantially different from the classic Khmer curry though and the rich sauce has a complex flavour derived from a mixture of, among other ingredients; ginger, peanuts, tamarind, onions, lemongrass, cardamom and cinnamon. The default version of this unusual and sumptuous curry is beef. Not always easy to find but we know a cracker!
5. Kor Ko
Another delicious dish that demonstrates the surprising complexity of many Khmer recipes as well as differentiating it from the largely wok-fried Thai cuisine is the soupy, stewed beef dish known as kor ko. A classic lunch but one that’s not widely known among visitors, kor ko is generally eaten with crispy French-style baguette. Well worth seeking out.
6. Char trop sak chrouk – grilled aubergine with minced pork
Another uniquely Khmer dish but yet again one that most visitors don’t often come across is the grilled aubergine and minced pork dish known as char trop sak. The aubergines are flame-grilled first, providing a smokey flavour, before being topped with a lightly spiced minced pork preparation. Another guaranteed winner!
7. Char kroueng
Again based on a rich, creamy, coconut milk sauce, char kroeung is a drier style curry in contrast to the soupy format of the classic Khmer version. The complex blend of herbs and spices means you’ll often see the ready-prepared, yellow coloured paste for sale in local markets which is then fried with a selection of chunky cut veggies and usually fish or chicken as desired. The delicious result is a mild, yet rich stir-fried curry.
8. Banana flower salad
While far less well-known than the green papaya or even green mango versions banana flower salad is found right across Southeast Asia (if you know where to look) with the bulbous, purple flowers providing a cheap and tasty food source. Like an artichoke, the outer, tougher petals are peeled and discarded and the inner petals diced or grated. Lime juice, fish sauce, peanuts, chilli, coriander are just some of the ingredients that may be added while chicken and fresh or dried prawns are also frequently added though strictly vegetarian options are widely available.
9. Nom prajok
Another staple local morning meal is the noodle and curry dish known as nom prajok. Again it’s one that’s often overlooked by visitors in favour of the better-known Vietnamese pho or Thai style pad Thai noodles. The vast majority of locals though wouldn’t go more than a day or 2 without a bowl of nom prajok and when you see chop-stick waving customers tucking into bowls at street or market stalls there’s a good chance this is what they’re eating. Fresh rice noodles are placed in a bowl to which a ladle or 2 of mild, curry flavoured sauce is added. As is often the case fish is the default version though chicken and vegetable alternatives are also common. Condiments and fresh herbs are then added to your taste.
10. Lor char
Of the myriad noodle dishes to be found across the region lor cha is certainly one of the most uniquely Khmer concoctions. It’s another hugely popular local dish but as with many is generally only found in street stalls and markets rather than eateries more specifically aiming at visitors. The short, stubby, rice noodles are stir-fried with greens in a kind of sweet and sour sauce obtained by adding sugar palm syrup. The standard version is with beef though vegetarian options are always available and the dish is topped with a fried egg and chilli sauce before serving.
11. Nom pang
A very obvious left-over from the French period are the piles of baguette-style loaves you see in many markets and street corners. Known as nom pang they are frequently eaten as an alternative to rice to accompany a Khmer curry or kor ko (above) as well as being made into local style sandwiches. The Vietnamese version, bah mi, is probably better known but the Khmer alternative is ubiquitous in markets and street stalls. Fillings vary though a classic version would be a local style pate along with perhaps slices of ham or meat-loaf and home-made dill pickles. Condiments include chilli sauce and often a scattering of coriander leaves. A cheap, filling and delicious lunch particularly if you’re needing a change from rice or noodles.
12. Ben cheo
Thai and Vietnamese – as well as French and Chinese are the main influences on Khmer cuisine and the rice flour pancakes, known as ben cheo, (spellings vary), are a perfect example of a south Vietnamese favourite that has been widely adopted in Cambodia – even to the point where we’ve come across Khmers who argue it is a Khmer dish! The wafer-thin pancakes – usually a yellow colour from the addition of turmeric to the batter – are folded and stuffed with minced pork, bean sprouts and perhaps a few extra prawns being the commonest filling. Pieces of pancake are then wrapped in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs and dipped in a soy vinegar, peanut and chilli sauce. Well-worth trying and another one that’s a good option for anyone wanting a change from rice or noodles.