When I first visited Cambodia, I had no idea what to expect from the cuisine. I figured it might be similar to Vietnamese, Thai or Lao food. To some extent, I was right. But Cambodian cuisine has a character all its own, melding traditional Khmer food with influences from countries both neighboring and distant.
Freshwater fish (catfish in particular), rice, noodles, fruits, vegetables, fermented sauces and a special seasoning paste called kroeung are the ingredients that work in harmony to create the distinctive flavors of Cambodian food.
Some Cambodian dishes were enjoyed by members of the Khmer aristocracy centuries ago, while others were mainstays among the peasant population. Today, however, you will find that rich and poor alike usually partake of the same dishes.
In fact, while I urge you to eat at some fine restaurants in Cambodia, one great way to keep your food budget low is to buy your food primarily from market vendors. Most of the dishes are the same—they simply cost less.
Below, I share some of my favorite Cambodian dishes with you including soups, seafood dishes and more. Be sure to add these to your list of foods to try when you visit this beautiful country.
One of the most iconic Cambodian dishes is fish amok, also called amok trei. While its origins are uncertain, it may have been a favorite of Khmer royalty.
Traditionally, the dish consists of catfish, snakehead fish or goby fish steamed in curry and served with great morinda leaves and steamed rice. Sometimes, other types of fish are used. The result is a savory soufflé-like meal with a light, exquisite flavor that is usually not too spicy. No wonder it is among the national dishes of Cambodia. Make sure to try it at least once during your visit. While it is often served at fine dining restaurants, you can find it at a lower cost in street stalls.
Many pasta dishes are popular in Cambodia. One of the most celebrated is nom banh chok, also spelled num banh chok. As a traditional breakfast food, this dish is the perfect way to start your day. Order it, and you’ll be able to indulge in delicious fermented rice noodles, vegetables and herbs served in coconut fish curry.
Not only is nom banh chok tasty, but it is also a beautiful, colorful dish that may be topped with flowers you can eat. As a noodle dish, it is generally quite affordable, but paying more may give you a dish with higher-quality ingredients.
If you are craving curry, but you prefer chicken to fish, you might consider ordering kari sach moan. This delectable dish, consisting of chicken, mushrooms, vegetables and rice in curry coconut broth, will leave you hankering for more. It is usually inexpensive or moderately priced.
For a dish that is as filling as it is refreshing, get plea sach ko, a traditional Cambodian beef salad. One thing that is good to be aware of when ordering a beef salad is that the beef may be either raw or grilled. Both are delicious and well worth a try before you leave the country.
When the beef is grilled, it is marinated briefly, but when it is raw, it is marinated for much longer, fully infusing it with the flavors of fish and lime. Other ingredients may include shallots, peanuts, Thai basil, bean sprouts, onions, lettuce, chilies and cucumbers. Sometimes there are chili peppers, which can make it spicy.
This special soup is known as “Cambodian stirring soup” or “Cambodian mixing soup.” Like the other recipes on this list, it is a traditional part of Cambodian food culture.
The hearty soup is made by stirring together chicken, fish (usually catfish), the traditional ground herb paste called kroeung (which is used in many of these dishes), fermented fish paste, and a combination of fruits and vegetables. The base of the soup may be either water or stock, depending on where you order it. It is not an expensive dish, but will be the cheapest when made with water.
This tasty noodle soup is another breakfast classic that is beloved throughout Cambodia. It is a good choice if you are seeking a dish with mild flavors (many Cambodian dishes are spicy). The broth itself does not have a strong flavor, but when you order it, you will receive a number of different garnishes. So long as you are not dining at high-end noodle shops, it is usually very affordable.
You can use them to personalize the flavors so you can enjoy the perfect version of this soup. If you do want to spice it up, chili sauce will usually be available. So, whatever your taste, this will probably become one of your new favorite foods.
Travelers who love spring rolls will be delighted to learn that they are popular in Cambodia. Spring rolls in Cambodia may be fried and crispy, or they may be rolled in clear rice paper wrappers.
Ingredients that might go into Cambodian spring rolls include minced pork, bean sprouts, mushrooms, vermicelli, onions, carrots, lettuce, basil leaves and more. There is usually a sauce as well, typically consisting of fish sauce, lemon juice, garlic, chopped peanuts, sugar and vinegar. Some recipes may include chili for spice.
Whatever type of wrapper is used and whatever the combination of ingredients, Cambodian spring rolls are a refreshing and satisfying snack, appetizer or side dish. As a popular street food, they are reasonably priced.
In the Western world, if you have a cold or flu, you eat chicken soup. In Cambodia, if you are feeling under the weather, you eat Cambodian congee, also called borbor sach moan. Hopefully, you will be feeling great during your trip to Cambodia, but you shouldn’t miss out on this inexpensive classic.
Cambodian congee is simply chicken rice porridge. It origins may be Khmer, Chinese, or some combination of the two. It is made by boiling chicken broth, rice, chicken, and additional ingredients such as cabbage, garlic, dried shrimp, bean sprouts, fish sauce and spices. The result is pure comfort in a bowl.
One distinctive dish that you can recognize in a heartbeat in Cambodia is ang dtray-meuk. While you are browsing the markets, follow your nose to the mouthwatering aroma of grilled seafood, and you will find this scrumptious squid dish for sale. Topped with a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, garlic and sugar, it will become one of your favorite Cambodian street foods. If you want it to be less spicy, skip the chilies.
We have focused this list on savory Cambodian and Khmer foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but what about dessert? One sweet delicacy you will want to partake in while you are in Cambodia is the famous pumpkin custard.
This dessert is the essence of simplicity. The only ingredients are pumpkin, egg yolks, coconut milk, sugar and salt. It is made by scooping out the contents of a pumpkin, discarding the seeds and fibrous parts, mixing the pumpkin flesh with the other ingredients, and then pouring them back inside.
The chef then simmers the pumpkin in a steamer for an hour. It may then be brought to the table and served by the slice. The creamy consistency and the sweet flavors will delight you.