Cambodia might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of Southeast Asian cuisine. Often overshadowed by dishes from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, it’s our guess that most people can’t name even one Cambodian dish. Though arguably similar in flavor and style to these regional culinary heavyweights, Cambodian cuisine has its own appeal and is every bit as diverse and delicious.
Rice is extremely important in Cambodian cuisine, served in abundance with almost every meal. So important is the staple, that it has even found its way into the language; it’s customary to greet people in Khmer by saying “Nyam bai howie nov?” (“have you eaten rice yet?”). So, of all the dishes that follow, there are very few that come without a generous serving of perfectly steamed rice.
Widely recognized as Cambodia’s national dish, you won’t need to look far for a restaurant serving Fish Amok. This fragrant fish dish comes swimming in a delicious sauce made from Cambodia’s signature Kroeung curry paste and a mouth-watering combination of coconut milk, fish sauce and palm sugar. Traditional cooking methods require the chef to steam the dish in a bowl-shaped banana leaf, which is usually how it’s served in restaurants – along with a healthy portion of rice of course. Can you get more authentic?
If you’re not a fan of fish, consider trying the variation Amok Chouk – a popular alternative that replaces the fish with steamed snails.
Stir-fried lemongrass and beef
This simple yet satisfying dish is available in restaurants across the country. Combining succulent cubes of beef with an assortment of fresh vegetables and the aromatic flavor of lemongrass, this fragrant dish is perfect for a quick meal. What’s more, it’s extremely healthy, so you can fill up on it without feeling the slightest bit guilty!
Grilled Pork and Broken Rice
If you’re looking for comfort food, it can’t get much better than this. This simple yet delicious meal is made from grilled pork marinated in coconut milk and garlic before being served on a bed of rice. You’ll find this hearty dish on any street food stall or restaurant, usually at breakfast time.
Coming second only to Fish Amok, Cambodian Loc Lak is another of the nation’s signature dishes. Marinated beef strips are stir-fried in a brown sauce before being dolloped on a carefully arranged bed of lettuce and tomato and served with a mound of rice. To top it off, the dish comes with a tangy dipping sauce made from lime juice and pepper. This traditional dish is extremely popular, and it’s not hard to see why; it’s simple, tasty and affordable. What more could you ask for?
Red Tree Ants with Beef
For the more adventurous among us, Cambodia has its very own dish of creepy crawlies. While it might not be as obscure as the notorious skewered scorpions found in Thailand, it’s certainly up there with the weirdest of them.
The dish is made from beef chunks stir-fried with a fragrant combination of shallots, ginger, lemongrass, basil, garlic and… red ants. Yes, you read correctly. One of the poorest countries of the region, many Cambodians have had no choice but to eat anything that offers a source of protein, however unappetizing. And while the society is getting wealthier, this dish has stuck around and continues to be enjoyed by people of all statuses. Are you up for the challenge?
If you’ve just about had enough of eating steamed rice, perhaps it’s time to try it in noodle form. Thin rice noodles are topped with a local style gravy and a mound of fresh vegetables, to form Khmer noodles; a dish that’s bursting with flavour and nutrition. It’s light, refreshing and perfect for a quick lunch or dinner.
Lime Marinated Khmer beef salad
Cambodia’s answer to ceviche, this refreshing dish consists of raw slices of beef covered in lime juice, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, basil and chili. It’s the perfect snack for a sticky summer afternoon, but be warned, it’s virtually impossible to order without a generous helping of spice. So, if you can’t handle the heat, we suggest avoiding it.
This local dish is formed of short fat noodles that are stir-fried with an assortment of vegetables and beef before being topped with a soy and fish sauce dressing. To finish it off, it’s topped with a fried egg and chili sauce, adding that extra kick.
If you enjoy your veg, you will love this delicious Khmer take on ratatouille. Made of a thick, vegetable soup flavored with ginger, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, fish paste and fish sauce, this extremely satisfying dish packs a punch. It contains an assortment of popular local vegetables including eggplant, papaya and beans, and is often served either with or without meat.
This is one that you’ll either love or hate. This fermented fish paste is often added to local dishes or served alongside rice and a salad. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and its pungent smell can be detected from far away.
These are just some of the many unique dishes Cambodia has to offer. After just a few days feasting on the local cuisine, you’ll realize that the food here is every bit as delicious as that of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.
Want to experience life in Cambodia? Find out more about our teaching programs in the ‘Pearl of Asia’ and immerse yourself in its culinary, cultural and linguistic delights.