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Taste of Southeast Asia: Dining in Cambodia

Cambodian Herbs. Image: Almond Group

Khmer Cuisine

Our final country in the Taste of ASEAN series is Cambodia. Cambodian or “Khmer” cuisine comes from the people who once ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from parts of Southern China to the tip of the Indochinese Peninsula, from Vietnam to Myanmar. After the fall of the capital of Angkor in the 15th Century, the Khmer Empire eventually become the modern country of Cambodia.

Khmer cuisine is marked by fresh ingredients as well as preserved items that give many dishes a split personality. Fresh fried fish is served with fermented soybeans, dried fish is served with fresh vegetables, and absolutely everything is served with plenty of rice. Some of the signature flavors associated with Cambodian food would be the funky prahok fermented fish paste, floral Kampot a native black pepper, jungle cardamom, and preserved fish and meats. When ordering meat, be sure to dip the slices into Khmer dipping sauce, which you make at the table from fresh-squeezed lime juice, salt, and Kampot pepper.

Typical dishes include chhar khnyey stir-fried chicken with heaps of fresh fried ginger and samlar chuw sour morning glory soup. Let’s take a look at three typical Khmer dishes that you can try on your summer vacation to Cambodia.

Amok Trey

Amok trey Khmer steamed fish cake. Image: Visualhunt

Amok is a Khmer steamed curry cake typically made from trey or fish. It gets pounded together with coconut and galangal and the paste is then steamed in a banana leaf. Rustic versions are served as a stew with chunky ingredients while the most refined versions of the dish are as delicate as a fine soufflé. Ranging in color from yellow to orange to green, it is typically prepared en masse for Bon Om Touk the annual Khmer water festival held around November to celebrate the reversal of the Tonle Sap River flow direction as well as the New Year.

On a trip to see the Angkor ruins near Siem Reap, you can go to Mlup Jek for a laid-back local spot with pull-tab Angkor beer. For Life Restaurant has a classier version of the dish while Rohatt Cafe is the spot to enjoy amok on a gorgeous teakwood balcony.

Khmer BBQ

BBQ meat with a side salad. Image: Visualhunt

The humble satay can be found all over Asia, but each country does it in their own particular style. Khmer style satay restaurants are a good call while traveling to Asia because the food is simple, filling, and delicious. Khmer BBQ beef skewers get marinated in coconut milk before hitting a charcoal grill until they are tender and crispy while still juicy. They are served with a side of pickled vegetables and char-grilled French bread slathered in sweet butter.

There are two great shop houses to try Khmer BBQ behind Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. BBQ Beef Sticks is a fine spot to try while the restaurant directly across the street is also lovely but not yet on the map. Be sure to order a cold mug of fresh sugarcane juice the color of chartreuse to wash it all down.

Nom Banh Chok

Nom banh chok is another typical Khmer dish that can be found everywhere. Typically available early in the morning, it’s a mild fish curry served over slim rice noodles for an herbaceous and hearty breakfast. If you like noodles, this is the dish for you. Sam Khmer Noodle in downtown Siem Reap is famous for their version while a takeaway version can be picked up at Phum Trang Market and eaten in your room as a morning pick-me-up.

The variety in Khmer food is astounding. From aerated amok to tender grilled beef BBQ to the slippery and savory nom banh chok, it’s impossible to have the same meal twice in one tri even though you’ll want to. Khmer cuisine with its strong flavors and a tangy squeeze of fresh lime are irresistible.

Thank you for joining us for the final country in our Taste of ASEAN tour. Keep an eye out here for even more info on the eats, sights, and experiences to be found all across ASEAN!