Cambodian food is a quiet achiever in the South East Asian stakes, with much of its flavor and staple ingredients borrowed from neighboring countries then given a local twist. Fresh and punchy flavors reign, so if Cambodia's your next food-focused destination, you're in for a real treat.
What to eat in Cambodia
Num banh chok
Breakfast is serious business in Cambodia, and num banh chok is a dish often consumed by the locals in the morning. It consists of rice noodles served in a cool fish stock with crisp raw vegetables like cucumber and banana blossom, usually accompanied by some fresh herbs and a couple of chillis on the side. Different regions have different variations, using a coconut, chicken or shrimp broth, and even the Cambodian royals have their own version!
Sure, there's Korean barbecue, but what's the deal with Khmer, or Cambodian, barbecue? Well, it's a similar concept: grilling meat on top of a charcoal-heated, hubcap-like contraption called a phnom pleung, which roughly translates as 'hill of fire'. You choose your meats – sometimes up to 14 on offer – and cook them all yourself. Your grill also has a 'moat' around the base for boiling a broth with vegetables and noodles – barbecue and soup all in one handy contraption!
You've probably heard of Vietnam's banh mi, but have you heard of nompang? Cambodia's answer to a baguette-style roll is slightly different but just as delicious, with three main versions – chrouk (pork), koh (beef) and trey (fish). All of them are made with the signature crusty Parisian roll that made its way to this corner of the globe during French colonial times. Now you can work out which country's rolls reign supreme.
Bai sach chrouk
If you're not enjoying a num banh chok for breakfast, have some bai sach chrouk – Cambodia's version of pork and rice. Often served by local street vendors, the pork is marinated with garlic and coconut and grilled over charcoal. Served with rice, pickled vegetables and sometimes a bowl of broth, this dish will definitely let you start your morning on the right foot.
Pronounced 'gwee-tee-yo', this traditional vegetarian Khmer noodle soup is made with glass noodles, sawtooth coriander, bean sprouts and blanched lettuce. It's very light and has some slight citrus notes to the broth, and can be loaded with chilli paste to really give it a kick of spice. There's no shortage of Cambodian noodle soups, or 'mee sop', around, and guitiyo is an easy (and often vegan) option.
Probably one of the most famous Cambodian dishes, amok is a slightly sweet fish curry that's found all around the country, from local street stalls to high-end establishments. The flaky white fillets of fish are served in a curry sauce spiked with kroeung – Cambodia's signature spice paste – and lemongrass and kaffir lime, served in a banana leaf bowl. Traditionally, this banana leaf is used to steam the fish and curry to make the sauce thick and complex.
Cambodia's lort cha is essentially the regional take on a stir-fried rice noodle. This dish uses a short rice pin noodle – although small, it soaks up all the flavours of soy and fish sauce as it's fried in a wok with greens, bean sprouts and pork. Often served with a fried egg on top and some chilli (depending on what you can handle), it's a super cheap option to pick up on your travels, and is definitely a crowd pleaser.
Do not fear – Cambodia's got your sweet tooth covered as well. Chet chien are a type of small fried banana nuggets and are a popular street food snack found in Cambodia's markets. The overripe bananas are fried in a batter containing sesame seeds and are dusted in sugar. Markets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will sell these treats; some with a slight local variation. What's not to love about something that's fried and coated in sugar?
Vegetarian and vegan options in Cambodia
If you're looking for something without meat, or 'aht chak' in Khmer, you won't have to look too hard. Most of the main stir-fries, noodle dishes, curries and salads are either vegetarian or have vegetarian options, and one of the most popular street foods – num kachay, or chive cakes – are vegan! The hardest part is knowing that all products used in preparing the dishes are vegetarian. Cambodian cuisine relies quite heavily on oyster sauce, fish sauce and chicken stock powder to impart flavor into dishes, as well as prawns as a garnish or snack. Asking at the end of your order for 'aht chak' will let the staff know to you want to swap the meat out for vegetables, and travelling with a local leader, they'll be able to ensure you're being served a meal that's without meat, or without all animal products.
Finding vegan options in local restaurants can be a hard task, and that's why some travelers take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to vegetarian dishes in Cambodia. If this isn't for you, probably best to stick to vegan restaurants – there's quite a few popping up in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Phnom Penh. In terms of dairy, be careful with local soy milks as often there are milk powders or milk products used. Check the ingredients before you buy – usually the dairy-free milk choices are labelled 'vegetarian soy milk'.
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