What do you think when you hear ‘Cambodian food’? Some sort of vaguely Southeast Asian curry, perhaps? A noodle dish? Some fragrant soup? Yep, it’s fair to say most people know little about this overlooked Asian cuisine. This is a shame because if you’re going to visit Angkor Wat and co., you might as well eat well while you’re at it. And, well, because it’s delicious. To prove just that, we’ve prepared a cheeky Cambodian food guide, with the help of some Intrepid insiders, plus Cambodian local and tour guide, Channa Uy.
So, try not to read this on an empty stomach, because you’re in for a long and tasty ride. Coming up: what to expect from Cambodian cuisine (technically known as ‘Khmer cuisine’), what restaurants you should visit when there, and a bunch of unique experiences on our 9-day Cambodian Real Food Adventure.
Khmer cuisine: A beginner’s guide
Cambodian cuisine is pretty heavy on the meat and fish. Especially the latter, thanks to the coast, the Mekong and the country’s various other rivers. The main meats eaten are pork and chicken. And ingredients such as coconuts, bananas, mangoes, limes, lemongrass, palm sugar and shallots feature often in local dishes.
Differences with Southeast Asian cuisine
The best of Khmer food is about balancing your meal as a whole. Where single Thai or Vietnamese dishes might attempt to balance spicy, sour, sweet, salty (and occasionally, umami and bitter) in a single bowl, Khmer food goes about achieving the same balance through multiple dishes with diners seeking out the different flavors over the course of the meal.
Another difference is that unlike in Thailand, chili in Cambodia tends to be served on the side, rather than mixed in with dishes. And, as a general rule, Cambodian dishes contain less chili, sugar and coconut milk than their Thai contemporaries.
Similarities with Southeast Asian cuisine
That all said, some dishes in Vietnam are popular in Cambodia too (after all, both countries were colonized by the French). Baguette-type sandwiches known as banh mi in Vientam are also common in Cambodia, and are called num pang pâté there.
Similarly, a favorite Cambodian drink – iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk – is also popular in Vietnam (guide here).
Flavors to expect in Khmer cuisine
Travelers should be prepared for many different kinds of flavors in Cambodian food, some of which might taste bitter to Western palates. For example, prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste that’s a common seasoning in Cambodian cooking. It has a strong, salty taste that takes a bit of getting used to, but does come in many different flavors depending on the ingredients and how it’s prepared.
Most main courses contain fish or shellfish, and rice is part of almost all dishes. Indeed, the most important part of every meal in Cambodia is rice. This is no exaggeration – there are more than a dozen types of rice commonly used. Aside from being eaten at lunch and dinner, rice also forms the basis of popular Cambodian street-side snacks like deep-fried rice cakes and rice noodle soup.
Must-try dishes in Cambodia
Visitors tend to enjoy Fish Amok when they visit Cambodia. This is a type of curried fish that is steamed to infuse it with flavor. So tender it often falls apart on the fork, it is delicious but isn’t super spicy (because, as mentioned, unlike neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian cooking tends to use more herbs than spices). The dish is often served in a banana leaf with a little coconut cream on top.
Though Fish Amok is considered by some to be Cambodia’s national dish, it’s actually a Khmer version of a Thai dish and isn’t hugely popular with Cambodian people. So, give it a try. But also give these dishes a taste or two, too:
- Samlor Karkoo – Mixed vegetable and green fruit (jackfruit, banana, papaya) soup
- Samlor Machou Yuon – Sour “Vietnamese” soup with fresh fish and tamarind
- Bok Svay – Pounded green mango salad, usually served with dried fish or prawn
- Tuk Meric – Pepper sauce that is used as a dipping sauce for barbecued meat. It’s made of ground Kampot pepper, salt and lime juice
- Num Banchok – cold rice noodles with Cambodian curry
Channa, one of Intrepid’s top tour guides in Cambodia, is from Siem Reap. To get a local’s perspective on the must-try dishes, we asked her for her favorite food:
“My favorite dish is Prahok Ktis, a rich liquid dip made up of prahok (Cambodian fermented fish). It’s mixed with a little bit of tamarind, coconut cream and chili sugar, and is served with vegetables.
Best restaurants to visit in Cambodia
Though you can find fantastic food pretty much anywhere in the country, both Phnom Penh (the capital) and Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat) have particularly great local food scenes and wet markets to explore.
Kampot and Kep are also amazing destinations for seafood, especially crab.
And if you’re worried you might tire of all the traditionally Cambodian dishes – don’t worry, there’s plenty of international food to be found too. American, British, French, Italian, Japanese and Korean expats have all set up restaurants serving their country’s specialties.
For more specific examples, we once again picked the brain of Cambodian tour guide, Channa (whose story you can read here). She emphasized the importance of making food choices that contribute to sustainable development in Cambodia. Her restaurant recommendations are laid out below.
I like to bring my group to restaurants that support local NGOs. It’s great for people on Intrepid tours to see where their money is going.
Best restaurants in Phnom Penh
- Friend – Training restaurant that helps disadvantaged youth. It serves share plates of creative cuisine with influences from across the globe, as well as cocktails and juices.
- Daughters of Cambodia – Lovely cafe (plus shop and spa) served by former victims of trafficking, who are being trained by to reintegrate into society. It offers fusion food, smoothies and cupcakes, and is located close to the National Museum and Royal Palace.
- Tiger Eye – Classy restaurant run by South African chef, Timothy Bruyns. It serves local and Western dishes, plus cocktails and craft beers.
- Romdeng – Training restaurant similar to Friend, set in a gorgeous colonial building surrounded by a garden and swimming pool.
- Foreign Correspondents’ Club – Offering a variety of international dishes, this is a great bar for a sunset drink by the river.
Best restaurants in Siem Reap
- Marum – An NGO restaurant like Friend; offering traditional Khmer food with lots of veggie and seafood options.
- Sala Bai – Training restaurant open weekdays for breakfast and lunch. Good selection of wine, and both Asian and Western menus.
- Head to Pub Street, which is filled with all manner of bars, if you’re looking for a drink (or three).
Best restaurants in Sihanoukville
- Sandan – A hospitality training restaurant in a beautiful garden setting. Serves creative cuisine with fresh, local ingredients.
- Starfish – An Intrepid Foundation project that’s incredibly worthwhile. The bakery/café is entirely run by Cambodians with a disability. In Khmer society, people with disabilities face serious discrimination. So, this project provides handicapped and marginalized Cambodians in and around Sihanoukville’s rural areas with access to services such as medical care, housing projects, small business assistance and education programs.
Best restaurants in Kampot
- Epic Arts – A cafe with mostly deaf staff, serving homemade cakes and light lunches. Profits go towards arts workshops for Cambodians with a disability and it also offers weekly sign language classes.
Dining etiquette in Cambodia
Cambodians use spoons and their fingers for food. Unlike the Chinese and Vietnamese, locals only use chopsticks for noodles.
Don’t expect to have multiple courses, such as starters and dessert. There is usually just one. Multiple dishes come out all at once and the food is shared.
Other things to be aware of food-wise
Cambodian food is not revered like Thai or Vietnamese cuisine. Although we certainly think it will be in the future, it must be noted that many Cambodians live a subsistence lifestyle. Developmentally, the country has a lot of catching up to do compared with its neighbors.
What does this mean for the cuisine? Mostly, that Cambodia doesn’t yet have the perfect supply chains or logistics to guarantee fresh ingredients. Outside Cambodia, it is difficult to buy produce that is vital for Cambodian food, especially dried and fermented fish. The Cambodian diaspora is also very small compared to any of its Asian neighbors. This means the cuisine doesn’t get the recognition it deserves internationally.
So, how best to experience the country and do it justice? Call us biased, but we truly believe that our 9-day food trip, from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, is pretty unbeatable in terms of unique and delicious foodie experiences. Want proof? We’ve got it:
5 coolest experiences on Intrepid’s ‘Real Food Adventure’ in Cambodia
Cooking class and market tour, Phnom Penh
Get to grips with the capital city by meeting a passionate chef who will take you on a guided tour of the markets. Here, you’ll learn about the building blocks of Khmer cuisine, enjoy a hands-on cooking class, and feast on your creations over lunch.
Rural food and cycle tour, Banteay Chhmar
Banteay Chhmar, a remote part of northwest Cambodia, is full of off-the-beaten path experiences. On our trip you start by taking a bike ride into the countryside. The ride is easy and takes in mostly shady roads through local villages. Along the way, stop and experience rice paper-making, fruit drying, rice wine-making and production of the famous prahok (fermented fish paste). This fish production is a must-see – it is the soul of Cambodian cuisine and intimately tied to Khmer identity.
Homestay, Banteay Chhmar
The small community at the temple city of Banteay Chhmar are incredibly hospitable. Witness this for yourself by staying with a local family in a traditional Khmer wooden-stilted house. After exhausting yourself exploring the 9th century ruins nearby, enjoy a memorable Khmer dinner by torch-light in the grounds of the temple.
Kampot Pepper Project visit, Kampot
The Kampot Pepper Project is as special as it is symbolic. Grown in Cambodia for centuries, Kampot pepper is considered among the world’s finest. The province’s pepper was almost completely wiped out during the Khmer Rouge period, thus pepper is seen as an important symbol of Cambodian regeneration
Street food tour, Siem Reap
Get proof of Siem Reap’s culinary diversity with an evening tuk tuk ride around the city’s street food treasures. Sample barbecued corn and meat on skewers; Khmer Fried Chicken; green mango served with chill and salt; ducks eggs, and more. Continue on to a local restaurant for more tasty treats, then finish at a dessert stall where fruit with sweetened condensed milk and baked puddings are the specialty.
Mouth watering yet? Join us on our otherworldly food tour of Cambodia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Steve Nolan, iStock/paronguyen, William Shapiro, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Cameron Rushton, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, iStock/Siwapon)