Last updated on October 14, 2019
Khmer food is quite underestimated compared with Thai or Vietnamese food. And it it is way more than Beef Lok Lak and Fish Amok (although the latter is much better than its equivalent, the Thai Hor Mok). The variety of Samlors, Khmer soups, is nearly endless, and then there are grilled dishes and the exotic ones, like snake soup and the fried spiders.
Food in Cambodia in general is less spicy and more sweet. Many recipes will require at least a tablespoon of palm sugar (or even more). The spices used are from India and Asia like cardamom and cinnamon. Tumeric is common, ginger and galangal as well.
The classic homemade food is based on what is in the garden and in season. Although thanks to imports from Thailand, China and Vietnam nearly everything is available on the market all year through, local homes still try to get most from the garden. When you enjoy a meal with locals, you may see that they will pick lots of leaves from nearby bushes and trees.
For example the leaves of the tamarind tree. Usually only the sweet-sour fruit is known (and important for the Samlor Kits), the leaves can be used in soups and as a herb in Omelette.
Another ingredient is roasted rice powder. Dry rice is roasted in a pan on open fire, then pounded in a mortar until its a fine powder. It will be used then in Samlor Kor Ko. Most people use the regular rice, but some will roast sticky rice, because it’s more fragrant. Making Samlor Kor Ko is also quite typical for the way many dishes are prepared: You take ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, garlic and shallots and brown them in a pan for a few minutes. Only then you can pound them in a mortar into a think paste. This paste is also called “krueng” and can be used in many other dishes.
Very important is the Cambodian fish paste. It’s called Prahok and is similar to the Lao Patek and the Thai Pla ra. The basis is crushed fermented fish left in the sun, then its salted and traditionally left in clay jars (but many use plastic containers these days). Prahok can be fried and then used as dip with rice and vegetables or used as an ingredient for soups and stews. Another use is to wrap it in banana leaves and cook it on a fire, covered with stones. As most fish and shrimp based pastes, it has a strong smell and sometimes hotels do not allow consumption of prahok in the room (bus companies may ban it as well).
The secret of fish amok
Amok means steamed coconut with a paste made of galangal, chilli, garlic, lemongrass, Kaffir lime and shallots. It will the be steamed with crushed fish or chicken. Vegetarian can also use Tofu instead. The secret of the Khmer amok are the young leaves of a plant called Noni (Morinda citrifiola) or Gnor in Khmer . The leaves are cut in small stripes and added to the mix of paste, coconut and fish. It can be steamed or even cooked in a pot, but the right way is to steam it in baskets made from banana leaves.
Khmer way of cooking meat
If you like street food, than the Khmer BBQs are the best place to try everything grilled. It is common to grill every kind of meat, from pork and beet to squid, frogs, snakes and rats. The latter for example are a well known dish in Battambang, Cambodias second biggest city. Beef is often marinated or covered in a spice mix. One of the most delicious take always are Lemongrass beef skiers. Other meat is usually marinated with chilli and sugar mix.
The other, on many houses more popular way to prepare meat is cha, what means stir fried. Beef Lok Lak is the most famous dish, but also noodles will be cooked first and then mixed with vegetables and sauces to be fried in a pan.
Noodles in the morning
When it comes to noodles, you will clearly see the influence of Chinese immigrants, who came to Cambodia centuries ago. They brought the flat white noodles and the egg noodles for example. One famous noodle soup is Nam ban choke Samlor trey, a soup with coconut and finely chopped fish, usually eaten in the morning. A stereotype for Asian food is the noodle soup, and Cambodia also has it’s own version, Khuy Teav. It is made from pork stock and contains white rice noodles and vegetables as well as beef or pork sliced and meat balls.
The Khmer version is more subtle than the Lao Pho and less intensive than the Vietnamese Pho, while the Thai Kuh Thiau is much more spicy. In Cambodia, the garnish is provided separately, and you can add lemon, bean sprouts, chili paste, sugar and soy sauce as well as fresh herbs to your liking.
The best way to experience the real local food is not the street food, but homemade dishes in local homes. You can book it online with services like Dine With The Locals, doing an excursion to Oudong Mountain or just make some friends and ask them if you can join them for a meal at home.
Contributed by the Dine With The Locals team