Cambodian food and drink may not be as well known as its neighbours but the food and drink are a delight to the tastebuds! Most foods in Cambodia are certainly less spicy than you will find in Thailand. Rice is, of course, the staple and most dishes are cooked in a wok.
Given the number of rivers and the dominance of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, it also comes as no surprise that freshwater fish figures quite large at the Cambodian meal table.
This includes the very Cambodian ingredient of prahoc, or fermented fish paste, that is beloved by Cambodians but which many foreigners find a little too pungent. Breakfast for Khmers is usually the ubiquitous rice soup.
Main meals will consist of a number of dishes served simultaneously, almost always including a soup of some kind. Cambodia’s signature dish is amok—fish cooked in banana leaves with turmeric and coconut milk.
Like many Cambodian dishes, it has a mild lemony taste. Another biggie is lok lak. It consists of diced, fried beef served with fried eggs, salad, and french fries or rice. A common condiment that gives lok lak and many other dishes a bit of added taste is salt and pepper mashed in with squeezed lime. It works with chicken, beef, and pork. There are five principal ingredients in Cambodian cooking.
Lemongrass adds a distinctively balmy flavour to many dishes, and you’ll often see it growing in gardens.
Kaffir lime leaves are ground into a paste and used like bay leaves to flavour soup or sliced into thin threads as a garnish.
Galangal, a cream-coloured root, resembles ginger but has a more subtle flavor. Again it is either ground into a paste or added sliced to give a slightly roasted flavor.
Tamarind paste is the dark pulp from inside the flat pods that grow on tamarind trees. It was introduced as an ingredient by Indian traders. Khmers use it to darken soups and give them a characteristic mixture of sweet and sour.
Prahoc is a fermented fish paste that is used as a stock base, seasoning and even as a dip for pieces of fruit. It is often referred to as Cambodian cheese because of its strong and sometimes putrid smell!
They will be cooked right in front of you or even at your table. Cambodians love fruit. Papaya, rambutan, pomelo, melon, bananas, pineapple, jackfruit, durian, and many others all play a major and very healthy part in the Khmer diet.
The imperialist legacy left its mark on cuisine in Cambodia. As in Laos and Vietnam, breakfast can be a fresh baguette and delicious filtered coffee. Also popular are baguette sandwiches with pâté and salad.
These can be bought from roadside vendors pushing glass-sided carts. While Cambodia has yet to see chain restaurants on a larger scale, international cuisine has come to its cities over the last 20 years.
You will find Vietnamese-style noodle soup pretty much everywhere and Chinese food is also an integral part of the scene. There is suki soup from North Asia, burgers from everywhere, and lots of Thai food. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (but particularly Phnom Penh) have some of the best selections of restaurants serving international cuisine in the entire region.
Whether you want Mexican tacos or Spanish tapas on the riverfront, a perfect steak au poivre in the shadow of Wat Phnom or English fish and chips by Central Market, Phnom Penh has it.
This is partly a legacy of the days when the UN was in Cambodia and businesses opened up, catering to the multiplicity of nationalities involved. The last 10 years have seen an explosion of new dining options and the competition keeps standards very high.
Drinking in Cambodia
Wherever you are, stick only to bottled water. You can also get cold fizzy drinks in most places, but they tend to be sickly sweet. You are also relatively safe with the fruit shakes sold at stalls and in markets. They are popular and very refreshing.
Most Cambodian’s like to drink refreshing sugar cane juice or tuk em pow in Khmer. You can see sellers pressing fresh canes almost anywhere in the cities or provinces and is a great way to quench your thirst on a hot day.
Iced tea and coffee are also very popular in Cambodia and again can be purchased almost anywhere!
Beer both local and imported, and brewed under license, is available everywhere. Angkor is the original Cambodian beer and is not bad, though it will give you a headache if imbibed in quantity. A good alternative is the similarly named Anchor. Pronounce it “Antcher” if you don’t want them to give you Angkor by mistake!