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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Nom ban chock
A breakfast dish of rice noodles topped with curry. (You can read more about our nom ban chock experience here.)
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!)
The next day we found some at a local food shack. And it was just as tasty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
10 years ago