Khmer cooking is one of the world’s most nuanced cuisines – elegant, harmonious and fresh. Herbs, leaves, pickles and edible flowers characterise aromatic soups and salads and pungent pastes are mandatory accompaniments to grills, stir fries and curries. It’s all about the contrasts: sweet and bitter, salty and sour, raw and cooked. Simple, flavourful and addictive, here are some of Cambodia’s favourite dishes.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
It’s said there are hundreds of words and phrases for rice in Khmer, not to mention hundreds of indigenous varieties of the grain. It stars in breakfast dishes such as bai sach chrouk, a staple on Khmer menus and at street stalls across Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Pork is marinated in soy sauce, coconut milk and palm sugar before being grilled over coals until the skin is just charred and the flesh nicely caramelised. Thinly sliced and sitting on top of short-grain rice, the meat is served with a side of broth and a platter of pickles – cucumber, carrot, daikon and perhaps zingy shredded mango. Get in early as you’ll be hard pressed to find this dish after 8am.
Wander the streets of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap before the morning traffic hits and you’ll come across women carrying flat baskets suspended from a pole across their shoulders. These women are worth stopping. Lift the banana leaves tucked over the top of their baskets and you’ll find thin rice noodles, which the women transform into nom banh chok (Khmer noodles) while you wait. In a bowl or sometimes a plastic bag, the noodles are mixed with shredded banana leaf, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint and basil before a thin green fish curry redolent of lemongrass and ginger is spooned on. Add a squeeze of lime and chilli to taste and slurp while watching the city wake up.
Phnom Penh is a good place to familiarise yourself with amok trey, arguably the country’s most well-known culinary offering. Typically, trey dang dau (a small fish not dissimilar to carp or catfish) is cooked in an aromatic coconut-based curry starring kroeung, a paste made with galangal, turmeric, cloves, garlic, chilli and lemongrass. It’s sometimes steamed in a banana leaf, giving it a mousse-like texture, but many local restaurants just serve the delicious golden soupy dish over rice.
SPICE OF LIFE
Cambodia’s south west coast, overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, is known for crabs and Kampot pepper. When they’re united in a dish, it’s a thing of beauty. Kep, once a premier seaside destination but since ravaged by decades of civil war, is today sleepy and somewhat surreal-looking: proteges of acclaimed Khmer architect Vann Molyvann built mansions here that now peek through thrusts of jungle, some in disrepair, some being transformed into boutique hotels. (Don’t miss Knai Bang Chatt, a modernist retreat steps from the sand.) You don’t come here for the beaches. You come for the food.
Kep’s seafood market sells live crabs and other crustaceans to passers by, and many hotels and restaurants will flash-fry your catch for a handful of dollars. But it’s much easier to slide along a wooden bench at one of the town’s waterside restaurants. As the sun sets over Phu Quoc and Bokor National Park, order crabs stir-fried with young garlic and lashings of Kampot peppercorns, often referred to in Cambodia as the “king of spices”. The peppercorns have a delicacy and complexity that adds a unique dimension to food, rather than heat. The pepper plantations are at Phnom Voir mountain, a 20-minute drive from Kep.
GET A GRILLING
Whether you’re in Kep or other beachside towns like Sihanoukville or Kampot, you’ll see seafood sellers carrying small charcoal-burning stoves on their shoulders, cooking squid as they walk along the shore. The ocean-fresh cephalopods are brushed with lime juice or fish sauce and barbecued on wooden skewers. Eat them piping hot with trimmings of cucumber and Asian basil, or dip them into a pungent sauce of garlic, fresh chillies, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar.
IN THE SOUP
There are regional variations of samlar machu, a citrus-y sour soup. Sourness in this dish generally comes from prahok, a paste made using fermented fish, tamarind, lemongrass and kaffir lime. So loved is the paste that it’s often served straight, with chilled cucumber and string beans on the side. The samlar machu soup is studded with tangy vegetables and fruit, including tomato, pineapple, pickled lime and morning glory and is the perfect accompaniment to a chilled Angkor beer.