Cambodian Food

There is an old Khmer saying which runs roughly as follows: “Eat anything that has four legs except a table, eat anything that flies except an aeroplane, and eat anything that travels by twos apart from a bicycle.”

It is sentiments such as this which give Cambodian food a bad name. And, especially since we have just had our first (unscheduled) encounter with the dreaded fertilised eggs in Saigon, it seems a little unfair.

Since you ask, they were pretty palatable. In fact, if one could get over the internal speedbump caused not only by a European background but a childhood spent in convent school internalising pro-life propaganda, I reckon they’d be a real treat.

Anywise, herewith a round-up of good, can’t-go-wrong and handle-with-caution choices in Cambodia.

GOOD THINGS

Sour Soup
Varyingly spelt Machou Kreurng, M’jou K’reung, M’chou Krourng, etc., this comes in incarnations from a thick, golden chicken broth soured with tamarind and packed with baby aubergines through to a clear soup soured with calamondin or lime and sprinkled with spring onions and rau rom. Always good.

Make your own Soup
A big pot of broth, over a flame, into which you add your choice of ingredients. Typical ingredients are morning glory leaves, the bitter tree leaf known as sdao, beef, seafood, pork balls, rice noodles and egg noodles, but really the sky’s the limit. The broth gets thicker as you work your way through it. Z really enjoyed the experience, if not the broth, at Suki Soup in Siem Reap: it’s a conveyor belt restaurant, along the lines of those Japanese sushi bars, and you simply pick your favourites as they trundle past.

Mushrooms
Cambodia has a great range of fungi. Besides the obvious enokitake, and the delicious white mushrooms known as paddy straw mushrooms, I’ve had white oyster mushrooms, dark, chewy, meaty shiitake-style black mushrooms, plus delicious, flat, leafy shrooms of a deep, burgundy hue that look not dissimilar to liver.

Amok
This term is used on menus to mean anything from a version of a Thai red curry through to lumps of meat in a heavily sugared sauce. The authentic version, fish in a mild coconut curry steamed in a banana leaf (foil will also do) is delicate and delicious.

Pork with Pickled Greens
A market-stall favourite, this is reliably good.

Crab with Green Kampot Pepper.
Delicious combination of sweet seafood with fresh, pungent, chlorophyll peppercorns. I wrote about this <s href="http://www.escapeartistes.com//2010/02/17/kampot-pepper/"here.

Lotus Seeds
Sold everywhere at the roadside, and one of the most fun snackfoods ever. I wrote about these here.

Ratanakiri Barbecue
Fry slivers of beef, pork and slices of fresh vegetables in butter over a table-top grill. Dip in your favoured sauce. Enjoy.

Sugar Cane Juice
Pressed from fresh at markets, street-stands and the like, and served in plastic bags over ice, this is a must-try. Add lime to achieve perfection.

Shrimp Pancakes
A great street-stall choice when near the Tonle Sap lake: whole shrimps fried in a spicy batter to form a crunchy, golden pancake studded with fresh-cooked shrimps.

Bleah
Also spelt pleah, plea, and blea, this is a salad of raw meat or fish (the base ingredient doesn’t matter) “cooked” ceviche-style in lime juice, and served with fresh veg, chilli, fresh herbs and a smattering of peanuts. It’s really hard to get a good take on this anywhere where it appears in English on the menu: tends to come either with cooked meat or smothered in peanuts. We tried a great one at Ramsey Buntam in Koh Kong.

Green Mango Salad
You can’t get away from green mangos at the roadside, where they are sliced into a flower shape, kept in place with matchsticks of sugar cane, and served with a dip of salt, pepper, sugar and chilli. Less aggressive than the very under-ripe green mangos, these make an outstanding salad when shredded.

Bitter Melon with Pork Filling
Even if you don’t particularly like the bitter taste of the squash known as bitter melon, the tang of a salty, chopped pork filling combined with the smooth squash mellows the bitterness to perfection.

Steamed Buns
The Khmer take on the ubiquitous steamed white bun known as bao in China features egg in a sweet and spicy meat filling. Surprisingly moreish.

Grilled Duckling
Served whole and crispy from the grill, this is great street food with an intense dark flavour.

Lemon Grass Curry
Your choice of meat stir-fried with chilli, lemongrass and generally some herbs, including Thai basil. Delicious.

Spiced Aubergine
Grilled aubergine mixed with soy sauce or prahok (fish sauce), plus spices including chilli and lemongrass. All the smooth smokiness of baba ghanoush with a distinctly South-East Asian edge.

HANDLE WITH CARE
Pâté
The versions of this I’ve tried appear to be some ungodly cross-pollination of French pâté, Vietnamese savoury custard and, quite possibly, Spam, or the US equivalent. Z really liked a sweet type based on snake and deep-fried at the roadside.

Sausages
Very similar to the sweet, plump, fatty Chinese sausage known as xiang chang. Did I mention the sweet, fatty bit?

Coffee
Generally muddy. Almost always served with sweet milk, a sugared, condensed milk dolloped from the can to the base of the glass, where it lurks, polluting all.

Caramelised Beef
Often served with eggs, most versions of this are fairly heavy on the sugar.

Cow’s Nose
A rural delicacy, where it appears in stews. The white, gooey stuff on the inside is the best bit, apparently, so as guest of honour you will be expected to, err, dig in.

CAN’T GO WRONG
Baguettes
Sold fresh on the street every morning and one of the most positive results of French colonialism.

Fruit
The whole wealth of South-East Asian fruits is here, pretty much. Rambutans, dragon fruits, watermelon, bananas, pineapple, papaya, sapodilla, mangosteens… White Rose in Battambang has a great fruit salad menu, and a lot of street stalls will make shakes.

Corn on the Cob
Easy street food. Lighter in colour and tougher in texture than the yellow, tender version we favour in the West, but with much more flavour and sweetness thanks to its longer ageing.

Toasted Bananas
Grilled until chewy, a delicious street food.

Grilled Chicken
Nuff said.

Eggs
From songthrush eggs to hen’s eggs, these are sold hard-boiled at roadsides and in markets.

Noodle Soups
I’m going to do a proper post on these — we’re getting quite obsessive about them.

All this said, Khmer cuisine, at least on its home turf, feels a little like British cooking did fifteen or twenty years ago: so scared of its reputation, so intimidated by the phenomenal cuisine of its historic enemy Thailand (read France), that it’s quite hard to find local dishes on the menu at all, or, when you do, they are served Thai style.

In places where they have no menu, and speak no English, of course, the flavours are fantastic.

9 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    Fantastic – can I join you?

  2. T says:

    Thai food comes from khmer cuisine thousands of years ago. khmer empire occupied angkor (in cambodia) and the rest of cambodia including thailand and other surroundings. cambodian food isn’t serving versions of thai food it is serving khmer food and thai serve their versions of khmer food, neither mimic each other. it is true that restaurants don’t often serve traditional local cambodian cuisine (due to bad rumours about prahok etc.) but that is changing. in fact, traditional local cambodian food is fantastic and just as good as (and specially different in its own way) as thai food.

  3. T says:

    P.S Evidence of Cambodia’s close relation to old khmer food is the fact that many dishes are not as spicy as thai dishes because chilli wasn’t introduced to asia until around the 16th century by i think the Portuguese

    • MummyT says:

      Hi T, Thanks for the comments! I entirely agree with you re: local Cambodian food, and I think I said that the fear of local cuisine was beginning to disappear. The point I think I was trying to make, as regards Cambodian and Thai food, is that in many restaurants catering to a tourist crowd the flavours are much, much more Thai (including use of chilli) than the earthier flavours you find in traditional Cambodian places. I think there’s been a huge amount of culinary cross-pollination in the region due to the incredibly fluid boundaries over the last thousand years (and longer)…

  4. T says:

    Very true. Unfortunately many tourists who go there seem to expect the food to be Thai-like so that probably influences the restaurants as they don’t want to disappoint the customers. I eat Cambodian food regularly at my girlfriend’s house so I’m lucky enough to eat true food. Interestingly enough, we recently went to Japan and visited a Cambodian restaurant in Tokyo and it was nearly identical to the home cooked Cambodian food! The owner set up in 1982 and his staff are Cambodian too.

  5. I had nothing but wonderful experiences with the Cambodian food. And for those scared to try the traditional stuff, I found the Cambodians made western food better than most western countries. My mouth waters as I think about my daily breakfast noodles for 50 cents from the street cart in Siem Reap.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, the sandwiches and some of the French cafes are excellent. (Although I prefer Lao sandwiches to Cambodian.) But. seriously, if you’re going to be colonised by anyone, make it the French, not the British…

  6. Drew says:

    Amazing!! I will be in Cambodia in 10 days.. Looking forward to the awesome food!!

    Drew