Exploring Cambodian Cuisine

We had limited time, a three-year-old in our entourage and a burning desire to sample the best Cambodian cuisine available.

Of course there was no pressure.

Now, there’s no way known I could become an expert on Cambodian cuisine in a week and a half. But despite our lack of expertise, we managed to eat some amazing dishes during our short visit to the country formerly known as Kampuchea.

So how did we do it? Without a guidebook, no less (No guidebook doesn’t mean no research, by the way.)

Without any forward planning or much discussion, Darling Man and I were both actively seeking out street food, asking hotel staff and tuk-tuk drivers where the best local food could be found, swanning into places with no English on their signboards (this is so much easier to do with a little bit of experience … or an Asian travel buddy) and showing locals our handwritten list of interesting dishes we found on Wikipedia.

We also did a street food tour of Siem Reap with Deborah from Cooks in Tuk-Tuks, which took us to the biggest market and a huge night-time food festival along both sides of a highway.

Our efforts were richly rewarded with dishes such as prohok, kuy teav, nom ban chock and chhar khnhei.

Here is a quick guide to the fabulous dishes we enjoyed.

Kuy teav

A Cambodian version of the dish called hu tieu in Vietnam, a noodle soup with pork and prawn. (Interestingly, one of the varieties of hu tieu is “hu tieu Nam Vang” … Nam Vang being the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh.) Although the written words “kuy teav” and “hu tieu” don’t look very much alike, the way a Cambodian says kuy teav and the way Darling Man says hu tieu was almost the same.

Kuy teav

Chruok svay

Very similar to the Thai and Vietnamese versions of green mango salad, we found a lady selling this delicious dish from a street cart near Siem Reap’s old market. It turned out the chruok svay lady and the guy selling lort cha from the next stand were both Vietnamese.

Chruok svay (from a sit-down restaurant. We forgot to take pics of our street stall salad!)

Ngam nguv

A bland-looking chicken soup with a very non-Asian taste. The killer ingredient is pickled lime and it is simply fantastic. This photo does not do ngam nguv justice but after I took a little taste I could not faff around with the camera any longer.

(I found a fabulous explanation of how to cook ngam nguv, which I will be trying at home.)

Ngam nguv

Prohok

Prohok seems to mean fermented fish paste and any dish with fermented fish paste as the main ingredient. Uncooked, it is a stinky grey sludge. This dish, however, was fantastic – salty and sour and utterly delicious.

Prohok

The less-appealing-looking raw version of prohok

Nom ban chock

A breakfast dish of rice noodles topped with curry. (You can read more about our nom ban chock experience here.)

Nom ban chock

 

Chhar khnhei

In other parts of the world, this dish would be called chicken stir-fried with ginger. In Cambodia, it’s known as ginger stir-fried with chicken because it’s the ginger, not the chicken, that is the star of the dish.

We couldn’t find this dish on the street, so Sokun, the manager of Tanei Guesthouse, got the kitchen to cook it especially for Darling Man’s birthday. (Later we found that it was on the menu anyway, but Sokun’s offer made the dish seem so much more special!)

Chhar khnhei

The next day we found some at a local food shack. And it was just as tasty.

Chhar khnhei from a local food shack

Cambodian hotpot

On our last night, after several blissful days exploring the back streets, we wandered through “tourist” Siem Reap. We selected the busiest food stall and ordered the most popular item on the menu — the local hotpot.

The setup was similar to the Lao and Thai hotpots we’ve tried, with seafood and meat barbecued with a lump of pork fat on the “mountain” in the middle and the vegetables cooked in the soup moat around the outside. It wasn’t bad, but I am so glad we made our list of Cambodian foods AND worked most of our way through it before we ended up here.

Cambodian hotpot

Amok

Probably the best-known of all the Khmer foods, amok is a mild coconut curry. It is hugely popular with tourists and there are many versions available.

We tried three during our trip. The first was amok trei (fish amok), a savory delicately-flavoured semi-solid custard steamed in banana leaves. The second was served in a coconut and the third was one of the dishes the lovely Sokun from Tanei Guesthouse organised for Darling Man’s birthday. They were all a bit different yet amazingly scrumptious.

A curry-like version of chicken amok

Lort cha and num kachay

We discovered both these tasty street foods by accident in Phnom Penh. And once we’d noticed them, we saw them everywhere. Here’s a market lady frying an egg to put on top of a serve of lort cha (short worm-like noodles). On the edge of the cooking dish you can see two types of num kachay (rice cakes with chives). The round ones are stuffed with chives (yum!) and the square ones are like a cake, with the chives distributed throughout.

Fermented fish egg pie

Very similar to chả trứng hấp, the Vietnamese dish that’s a standard offering at cơm tấm (broken rice) places. The Vietnamese version, however, isn’t served dramatically studded with chillies like this version.

In Vietnam, this “cake” is made with pork, vermicelli and egg, with beaten egg yolks poured on top to make the sunshine-yellow upper layer. The Cambodian version is made with fermented fish.

Fermented fish egg pie

Tofu and seaweed soup

Another Cambodian dish that’s very similar to a common Vietnamese dish. The seaweed lifts the blandness of the tofu to make a very interesting taste. The texture, well … that’s something else entirely. Not horrific, just slightly slimy.

Tofu and seaweed soup

Sugar cane and lime juice

It’s hot work carrying a toddler around ancient temples, up and down hotel stairs and around the streets of Siem Reap. Miss M’s contrariness came out in the form of not walking during our Cambodia trip … and we really didn’t have time to argue the point, so we just picked her up and kept going.

But it was hot. And sugar cane juice was a welcome and cooling pick-me-up (no pun intended).

Sugar cane and lime juice

But wait, there’s more …

Because you can only eat so much in a day, there were some amazing dishes that we saw but didn’t eat. (Of course, could have just been pretending to be full in some cases.)

Barbecued frog

 

Edible flowers at the market

Fried water beetles

Dried fish

6 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Currently on a year-long World School adventure with my two kids, seeing what this wonderful world can teach us.

15 Comments

  1. um, no on the beetles. YES on everything else- but maybe not the dish studded with chilies?!! YIKES! that must be hot. what wonderful food!!
    wandering educators recently posted..The Biggest Little House in the Forest at CTC

  2. The amok sounds wonderful! By the way, you guys at A LOT of food in a week and a half 😉
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Living like a local in NYC… the good and the bad

  3. Jenny says:

    Thanks for the yummy post!
    We loved the Fish Amok too, especially the children. Did you see the guy who made banana pancakes with chocolate and egg (!?) at a little mobile stall in the Siem Reap Night Market? We could not get enough of those, yumm. They are supposed to come from Thailand, though we never saw them there; and sadly, we never saw this kind of pancakes anywhere else in Cambodia or Vietnam.
    A “traditional dish” you seem to have missed is “Lok Lak” – fried beef with a delicious dip-like sauce of pepper, lemon grass and sea salt (or so we deducted). Hmmm…
    Jenny recently posted..Hobbit-Premiere: die Weltwunderer waren dabei!

  4. This just made me SOO hungry! I’d like to try everything! Well, maybe not the beetles.
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Sampling Northern Thai Cuisine in a Curio Shop

    • Barbara says:

      Even Darling Man baulked at the beetles, which surprised me. He happily munches on crickets, worms and whole fried frogs. I think the size of the beetles put him off.

  5. Mark Wiens says:

    Tasty article Barbara, it all looks wonderful! As a big fan of ginger, I love the ratio of ginger to meat in chhar khnhei.
    Mark Wiens recently posted..PHOTO: Lucky Charms at Bangkok’s Amulet Market

  6. Laura says:

    Everything looks delicious! Well except for maybe the gray sludge and the beetles. I miss the food in southeast Asia!

    • Barbara says:

      The grey sludge looked and smelled particularly unappealing. But cooked up it was fabulous!
      The beetles, well, they didn’t smell very good so I didn’t want to try them. They were intimidatingly big.
      I hope you get to SE Asia sometime soon. It’s a very selfish hope, though. I want to hang out with you!

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