Squished between culinary heavyweights Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodianis often overlooked when it comes to food. But once you’ve sampled Khmer cuisine, you won’t turn back.
Here are some dishes to start you off
01, Bai sach chrouk: Pork and rice
No two bai sach chrouks are ever alike.Served early mornings on street corners all over Cambodia, bai sach chrouk, or pork and rice, is one of the simplest and most delicious dishes the country has to offer.
Thinly sliced pork is slow grilled over warm coals to bring out its natural sweetness. Sometimes the pork will be marinated in coconut milk or garlic — no two bai sach chrouks are ever exactly the same.
The grilled pork is served over a hearty portion of broken rice, with a helping of freshly pickled cucumbers and daikon radish with plenty of ginger.
On the side, you’ll often be given a bowl of chicken broth topped with scallions and fried onions.
02, Fish amok
Fish whipped into a mousse. Tastes far better than it sounds. Fish amok is one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes, but you’ll find similar meals in neighboring countries.
The addition of slok ngor, a local herb that imparts a subtly bitter flavor, separates the Cambodian version from the pack.
Fish amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, or Chinese ginger.
At upscale restaurants fish amok is steamed in a banana leaf, while more local places serve a boiled version that is more like a soupy fish curry than a mousse.
03, Khmer red curry
A red curry that doesn’t end in flames bursting from your mouth.Less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand Kmer red curry is similarly coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili.
The dish features beef, chicken or fish, eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass and kroeung.
This delicious dish is usually served at special occasions in Cambodi asuch as weddings, family gatherings and religious holidays like Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, where Cambodians make the dish to share with monks in honor of the departed.
Khmer red curry is usually served with bread — a remnant of the French influence on Cambodia.
04, Lap Khmer: Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad
Lap Khmer, a ceviche-style beef salad.
Khmer beef salad features thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or “cooked” ceviche-style by marinating with lime juice.
Dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans and green pepper, the sweet and salty dish also packs a punch in the heul (spicy) department with copious amounts of fresh red chilis.
A refreshing dish that is more beef than salad, lap Khmer is popular with Cambodian men, who prefer the beef to be nearly raw — but at restaurants it’s generally served grilled.
05, Nom banh chok: Khmer noodles
Enjoy, just don’t call it pho.Nom banh chok is a beloved Cambodia dish, so much so that in English it’s called simply “Khmer noodles.”
Nom banh chok is a typical breakfast food, and you’ll find it sold in the mornings by women carrying it on baskets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders.
The dish consists of noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime.
Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower, cucumbers and other greens are heaped on top. There is also a red curry version that’s usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities
06, Kdam chaa: fried crab
Kampot, the saffron of pepper. Fried crab is a specialty of the Cambodian seaside town of Kep. Its lively crab market is known for fried crab prepared with green, locally grown Kampot pepper.
Aromatic Kampot pepper is famous among gourmands worldwide, and although it is available in its dried form internationally, you’ll only be able to sample the distinctively flavored immature green peppercorns in Cambodia.
It’s worth a visit to Kep and Kampot for that alone, but Phnompenh restaurants bring live crabs in from the coast to make their own version of this delicious dish, which includes both Kampot pepper and flavorful garlic chives.
07, Red tree ants with beef and holy basil
A recommended starter before you move on to the skewered bugs.
You’ll find all sorts of insects on the menu in Cambodia. Tarantulas included.
But the dish most appealing to foreign palates is stir-fried red tree ants with beef and holy basil.
Ants of various sizes, some barely visible and others almost an inch long are stir-fried with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and thinly sliced beef.
Lots of chilies complete the aromatic dish, without overpowering the delicate sour flavor that the ants impart to the beef.
This meal is served with rice, and if you’re lucky you’ll also get a portion of ant larvae in your bowl.