Cambodian food might not be as popular along western high streets as Vietnamese and Thai but word is quickly spreading about the weird and wonderful dishes of this Southeast Asian country.
While Cambodian cuisine hasn’t yet hit the mainstream, this isn’t such a bad thing. It simply means that the best place to get an authentic taste of Cambodia is in the country itself! For those of you visiting Cambodia, read on to get the lowdown on what the cuisine is like, how much you should expect to pay and the best dishes that you don’t want to miss on your next trip!
What’s Cambodian Food Like?
Drawing on various Asian influences, most notably Chinese, Khmer cuisine offers a variety of flavours without the heavy spice that often comes with Thai recipes. Cambodian food is aromatic and herbs such as coriander and lemongrass frequently feature. Coconut milk, chilli and sugar are used less often in Cambodian dishes than in those of other Southeast Asian countries.
As you would expect from any kind of Asian food, rice is a staple that features in many dishes. The Cambodians love rice so much that they actually greet each other by saying, “Nyam bai howie nov?” This literally means “have you eaten rice yet?” Cambodia is not the only country in Southeast Asia to use this as a greeting though. In Thailand, they use “Kin Khao Reuang?” which means the same thing. These examples just go to show the importance of rice in Asian culture!
As well as each meal coming with a bowl of rice, there will usually be 3 or 4 smaller dishes too which often include a soup. Fish is also commonly eaten, thanks to the mighty Mekong River which runs through the middle of the country. Chilli will often be served on the side rather than in the dish itself so you can help yourself according to your taste!
How is Cambodian Food Cooked?
Authentic Cambodian food will often be cooked in a wok over a charcoal stove. The oil of choice is usually palm oil and although vegetarian options are sometimes available, the pan will rarely be washed in between cooking vegetable and meat dishes.
Cambodia Food and Drink Prices
Southeast Asian street food is known for being cheap and delicious and Cambodia is no exception. If you are working out your Cambodia budget, you can expect to pay somewhere between 2,000 – 8,000KHR (50 cents – $2USD) for a basic dish that is guaranteed to fill you up. If you can’t choose what to get, why not sample a couple of different options? After all, for that price, you can afford to!
If you are eating in restaurants, prices will vary but you will probably pay somewhere in the region of 8,000 – 40,000KHR ($2-$10USD) per meal. It is also possible to use apps such as TukOut and Foodpanda to get dishes delivered. Western options are surprisingly easy to come by across the country but who goes to Cambodia to eat a burger? It’s amok all the way for me!
If you want to learn more about Khmer cuisine and even learn to cook a few of your own dishes, check out Lily’s Secret Garden Cooking Class, located in Siem Reap. For just $25, you can learn how to cook some of the country’s most delicious dishes and impress all your friends back home!
19 of the Best Cambodian Dishes to Try!
1. Kuy teav (Noodle soup)
Cambodia’s noodle soup is a popular breakfast dish that is commonly bought from street vendors. It is usually made from rice vermicelli and beef or pork bones. The broth is flavoured with fried shallots, green onion, garlic and bean sprouts. Pork or beef balls are then added just before serving.
It is believed that kuy teav was invented by the Chinese, who came to Cambodia to trade goods way back when southern Vietnam was still part of the Khmer empire. The name of the dish comes from the Chinese word used to describe cut noodles made from long-grain rice flour.
2. Amok trey (Fish Curry)
Perhaps the most famous Cambodian food is amok trey, a creamy kind of curry. Usually containing freshwater fish, coconut milk, fish sauce, eggs and palm sugar, this is one dish you’re bound to get hooked on!
Amok Trey is easy to find in restaurants all over the country and it is traditionally served in a banana leaf which has been shaped into a bowl. Steaming the curry in the leaf gives it a mousse-like texture which all but makes it melt in the mouth! Kroeung, a paste of blended local spices such as kaffir lime, lemongrass and turmeric is also added to the dish. Unlike similar versions of the dish which are eaten in Laos and Thailand, amok trey is not spicy and instead, zesty and fragrant.
3. Gnoam trayong chek (Banana Blossom Salad)
More commonly known as Banana Blossom Salad, this light dish is a popular choice for lunchtime as it often gives people the refreshment they need from the midday heat. The crunchy banana blossom is stir-fried with garlic, lemongrass, shallots and chillies. A squeeze of lime is then drizzled on the top, making this a citrusy and reviving dish.
4. Nom banh chok (Khmer noodles)
These Khmer noodles are a hugely popular breakfast dish. You will most likely see them being served by ladies on the street who usually carry baskets of fresh ingredients. These baskets hang from a pole that is draped across their shoulders.
The thin noodles are made from rice which is topped with green fish curry. Beansprouts, cucumber, banana flowers and mint leaves are also thrown into the mix. In Siem Reap, these noodles are commonly served with tuk paem, a sweet sauce made from peanuts and palm sugar.
5. Kang kep baob (Stuffed frog)
Making an appearance on street food carts all over Cambodia, kang kep baob, also known as stuffed frog, can make the average visitor’s eyes pop. Whilst it might be intimidating at first sight, there is no denying that these stuffed frogs are downright tasty.
The frogs are stuffed with pork, peanuts, saffron, coconut and kroeung paste. They are then left to dry out in the sun before being grilled over hot coals. Kang kep baob is a popular street snack for those who have been drinking (I wonder why?) and are also a favourite of the vendors who sell them. This is because the frogs hop about freely during the rainy season, meaning they are free to obtain!
6. Nhoam svay kcha (Green mango salad)
Salads are very popular across Cambodia and although they vary in terms of their main ingredient, the herbs used tend to stay the same. Usually, mint, Cambodian mint, Thai basil and fishwort will be all that is used.
Nhoam svay kcha translates to green mango salad where the main ingredient is, yep, you guessed it, mango. However, as well as the mango, which shouldn’t be too ripe, this salad usually contains dried shrimp and smoked fish. The flavours of the fruit meet the saltiness of the fish, creating a mouthwatering and refreshing dish. The dish is similar to somtam in Laos and Thailand.
7. Lok Lak (Stir-fry with brown sauce)
Lok Lak is another popular stir fry dish, usually featuring beef or sometimes pork. The meat is stir-fried in a brown sauce which is served over a bed of salad. It is served alongside rice, often with a fried egg sunny side up. A lime, salt and pepper sauce is also provided for dipping.
Although this is a dish offered all over the country, there are regional variations that can impact taste and flavour. For example in Phnom Penh, they often serve Lok Lak Americain. In this version of the dish, the rice is replaced by the addition of chips.
8. Bai sach chrouk (Pork and rice)
This is the National Breakfast Dish of Cambodia. The pork used in bai sach chrouk is marinated in coconut milk and garlic before being slowly grilled. It is served with broken rice (rice grains that have fractured during the milling process) and fresh vegetables. Sometimes a small bowl of chicken broth will be served too.
This Cambodian dish is a popular addition to the street food culture and is available everywhere in the morning. As well as being readily available on the street, it is also possible to find in more upmarket restaurants. We recommend pairing it with an iced coffee – delicious!
9. Chaa kdam meric kchai (Pepper crab)
Commonly sold in the seaside town of Kep, these pepper crabs are a local speciality. The crabs are freshly caught before being sold at roadside restaurants. The pepper used is grown in the nearby town Kampot. This gives the dish a hot and fiery taste so be warned if you can’t handle too much heat!
Kampot pepper has been internationally recognised and as a result, has been awarded Protected Geographical Indication status. 70% of the pepper is exported, with the majority of it being imported by Europe.
10. Lap Khmer (Khmer beef salad)
Not one for the faint of stomach, this salad commonly uses thin slices of raw beef. Much like Peruvian ceviche, it is marinated in lime juice, with garlic, onion, prahok (Cambodian fish paste), sugar, green beans, beansprouts and fish sauce.
It is served with chilli on top so it can be pretty spicy. Although the beef is nearly always served raw in Cambodia, if you are recreating this dish at home, you can always lightly grill the steak if you prefer.
11. A-Ping (Deep-fried tarantula)
Note that this list is of the best Cambodian dishes to try, not the most delicious ones! And it is impossible to talk about Cambodian food without addressing the rather large, monstrous spider in the room.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the people of Cambodia were starving. It was believed that they had no choice but to start eating whatever they could get their hands on. This is how tarantula found its way onto the menu. Commonly deep-fried, tarantula is still a popular street food snack today. Although you can find it for sale in Phnom Penh, Skuon (also known as Spiderville) is the best place to try it, (if you dare)!
12. Num Pang (Cambodian sandwich)
These baguettes are Cambodia’s answer to the Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich and are a throwback to French colonial times in Cambodia when the country was part of French Indochina (1887-1946).
The sandwiches are stuffed with a variety of grilled meats, fresh vegetables and then garnished with Kampot pepper. Whilst they aren’t anything fancy, they are cheap and filling – everything a backpacker needs!
13. Sngor chruak sach trei (Sour fish soup)
Soup is readily eaten in Cambodia and this version is one of the most popular. The ‘sngor’ soups are usually very simple and adaptable. They are designed to showcase the main ingredient of the broth, in the case of the sour fish soup, the fish from the Tonlé Sap Lake.
The fish will be cooked in a lemongrass broth which has been seasoned with fried garlic and lime juice. Saw leaf coriander and Thai basil are also added to the mix, as well as shredded green mango and mushrooms. It has a refreshing taste.
14. Ongkrong saek koo (Red tree ants with beef and holy basil)
Upon first glance, nothing seems unusual about this Cambodian dish. However, on closer inspection, you will notice varying sizes of red tree ants are mixed in with the beef strips. All of the ingredients are stir-fried together with garlic, lemongrass, ginger and shallots.
The ants bring a sour flavour to the beef and there is also lots of chillies which gives the dish a kick. The stir fry is served alongside rice which can come with extra ant larvae. Whilst it might not be a food that makes you drool initially, where else will you get the chance to try something like this?!
Note: Although many Westerners may think it’s unappetising to eat bugs, there is ample evidence that eating insects is not only good for your body but good for the environment too! Maybe one day we’ll all be following Cambodia’s lead!
15. Ang Dtray-Meuk (Grilled squid)
As you’re now more than aware, it is pretty possible to find most things for sale on a stick in Cambodia. However, you’ll be relieved to hear that not all of them are creepy crawlies! These grilled squid skewers are another popular street food snack, often for sale around Cambodia’s coastal regions such as Sihanoukville and Kep.
Before grilling, the squid is garnished with lime juice or fish sauce. It is served with a unique dipping sauce which is made from chillies, garlic, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. (You can never have enough fish sauce after all!)
16. Kaw (Caramelised pork/chicken)
This classic dish can be made with either braised chicken or pork. The meat is slow-cooked in a caramelised broth which is a combo of fish sauce, pepper and caramelised palm sugar. Sometimes, bamboo shoots and tofu might be added and a hard-boiled egg is usually served on top.
This popular dish would be cooked by mothers for their children when they wanted to reward them for doing a good job. This means it has become a kind of comfort food to many.
17. Nom Ka Chai (Chive cakes)
These delicious street food snacks are a favourite with backpackers for their small price tag and delicious taste. Fried in a shallow pan, these cakes are made using glutinous rice and chives. They are served alongside a spicy fish dipping sauce.
If chive cakes have been cooked properly, they should be crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. These can easily be served vegan if you are able to articulate that you don’t want fish sauce. (We have some helpful translations for ordering food later!)
18. Nhoam krauch thlong (Pomelo salad)
Pomelo (think large yellow grapefruit) is surely one of the most delicious Asian fruits there is, which makes it a great base ingredient for a salad. In this dish, the sour pomelo is paired with pork belly, dried shrimp and toasted coconut. It is then garnished with fried shallots and mint leaves, offering a refreshing midday dish.
When a lot of care has gone into the salad, the pomelo will not be served in wedges. Instead, each juicy vesicle is separated and served on top, offering just the right amount of citrus flavour.
19. Nime Chow (Cambodian Spring Rolls)
Popular all over Southeast Asia as a street food snack, each country has its own version of the beloved spring roll. Cambodian spring rolls can be fresh or fried and usually contain a type of protein (usually either chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu), carrot, lettuce, cucumber coriander and holy basil.
They are different to Vietnamese or Thai spring rolls as they tend to leave out the vermicelli rice noodles. (Although you may find this version of the spring roll in Cambodia too!) The rolls are usually served with a peanut or spicy-sweet fish sauce dipping sauce. You will find these delicious and nutritious snacks all over the country especially at markets and local restaurants.
Being Vegan or Vegetarian in Cambodia
Cambodia is not the easiest country to travel around if you have strict dietary requirements. However, this does not mean that it cannot be done! Although some strict Buddhists will eat a vegetarian meal once every two weeks, in general, Cambodian people aren’t likely to understand why you would not want to eat meat or fish.
Read More: Travelling Southeast Asia as a Vegan
Although there are some street food snacks which are sometimes veggie and maybe even vegan-friendly, e.g. chive cakes, in general, restaurants will have a better understanding of dietary requirements.
If you are vegetarian, the best way to get a veggie dish is to simply ask for it without fish (ot dak trei) or meat (ot dak sait). This is the easy part. It is usually much more difficult to avoid meat stock and fish sauce. The easiest thing to do is reel off a list of things you can’t eat. This is also the best course of action for vegans.
The following few translations might be helpful:
- I don’t eat meat – knyom mun nyam sat
- Vegetable – bong lie
- No meat – aht chak
- Milk – tduk dah ko
- Egg (chicken/duck) – pong moan/thear
- Fish sauce – tduk try
- Oyster sauce – preng chong
- Thank you – or-kun
If you want to try your hand at cooking some of these Cambodian dishes, why not sign up for a cooking class whilst in Cambodia! We recommend Lily’s Secret Garden in Siem Reap.
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