Cambodian cuisine is spice-laden but not overpowering, with a mix of sweet, salty, sour and umami flavors. Here are 11 outstanding dishes to try
1. Bai char
The Cambodian version of fried rice has the perfect blend of sweet, spicy and savory, and is topped with a fried egg. This reliable hangover antidote owes its flavor to the spicy-sweet chili sauce used to make it. Street carts around Siem Reap offer the usual chicken, pork or beef choices for only US$1, but most hotels and restaurants have versions with homemade Siem Reap sausages or crocodile meat.
Every Khmer mother has her own version of amok, using either chicken, fish or mushroom. What gives the dish its unique curry-like flavor is the kroeung paste. The aromatic paste is a major flavor base for Cambodian cooking, and is made by pounding together lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, palm sugar and kaffir lime leaves. Some recipes include shallots, red chilies and cilantro.
Market stalls cook amok on the pan either as a wet curry or wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. The Sugar Palm Restaurant’s royal version, as prepared for Khmer nobility, is steamed on banana leaves or dried coconut shells until it reaches a soufflé-like consistency. Each order is made fresh from scratch; this version takes almost an hour to prepare, but it’s worth the wait.
3. Num ban chok
Asia has a thing for noodles and Cambodia’s best is the num ban chok. It’s made of fresh rice noodles doused in a hearty fish-based gravy and garnished with bean sprouts and a heap of homegrown greens and flowers. The ingredients vary according to the season, so don’t be surprised if the one you had in March is different from the bowl you enjoy in October. Popular as a breakfast meal but still had at dinner, this dish is usually served at room temperature. Locals drive all the way to food stalls at Banteay Srey and Preah Dak Village, where the noodles are made by hand, to enjoy this dish.
This ubiquitous Cambodian snack is a simple combination of coconut milk, sticky rice and black beans stuffed in young bamboo, then cooked over charcoal. It’s a sweet treat eaten by shredding the bamboo skin and pinching the rice with your fingers to form bite-sized morsels of goodness.
There are krolanh ladies on push bikes just across the entrance to Angkor Wat, but the best ones are found on the roadside of National Road 6 on the way to Phnom Penh. Tip: bring one back to your hotel and ask for a small plate of powdered local palm sugar. Pinch a clump of the sticky rice, roll on the palm sugar and eat.
5. Bok lahong
This spicy salad is made by mixing and pounding together shredded green papaya, tomatoes, string beans, basil, dried shrimp and small crabs. It has similar variants in Thailand and Laos, but the kroeung paste and subdued use of hot chili make it Cambodian.
There are bok lahong food carts plying every neighborhood but the ones along the bustling Street 60 (across from the building where travelers buy passes to the Angkor Archaeological Park) are the best finds and are open from late afternoon to late in the evening. At US$1 to US$1.50 per bowl, it’s a cheap but good treat.
6. Lok lak
As ubiquitous as tuk-tuk drivers in Pub Street, the lok lak — a simple stir-fried beef dish with a killer pepper sauce — is present on every menu on every Khmer restaurant in Cambodia. This easy recipe, which consists of marinated cubed beef stirred and shaken on a hot wok, tossed onto a bed of vegetables and topped with a fried egg, is popular at street stalls. Chef Pola Siv serves a more refined version at Mie Café. Instead of diced beef, it features a whole slab of Australian beef cooked with finely ground Cambodian pepper and paired with local watercress and fresh peppercorns.
7. Stir-fried seafood with fresh Kampot pepper
One of Cambodia’s biggest exports is the Kampot pepper, a uniquely flavorful variety grown on the coastal farms of Kampot in southern Cambodia. This zesty dish uses the fresh, unripe drupes of the pepper, which are stir-fried lightly with shrimp and squid. Take a peppercorn or two with every spoonful of this dish and notice how they explode in tiny sensational bursts in your mouth. Caution: they are highly addictive.
Although a dish closely associated with the seaside cities of the south, this is available in open-air seafood restaurants dotting the Khmer Pub Street as well as the popular Viroth’s Restaurant at Wat Bo Road.
8. Lotus salad
This lush, crunchy salad uses most of the lotus flower: stem, seeds and plush pink petals. Some local restaurants also use lotus roots. Mixed with peanuts, sweet basil and peppermint, it’s a dish that’s as yummy as it’s pretty.
Khmer Touch Cuisine at Sivutha Boulevard across the Triangle Night Market has the best-tasting (and best-looking) lotus salad in town. Its most popular variant (even The New York Times noticed) is the one with chicken, although their vegetarian version is equally good.
Cambodians love their bok ambal — a dip made of crushed chili, salt and sugar. It’s usually eaten with fresh and pickled fruits for snack time. Packs of bok ambal are sold by vendors at street corners, along with pickled fruits and veggies. There are versions with small dried shrimps or ground pepper mixed in, bottled and sold at the market and grocery stores around town.
10. Prahok k’tis
Prahok k’tis — fresh sliced or steamed vegetables and greens dipped in a rich and pungent prahok (fermented fish paste) and ground pork sauce — is a favorite in every Khmer household. Most major market stalls in town serve this in the morning. Traditional local haunts like Banteay Srei Restaurant, one of Siem Reap’s oldest restaurants, serve it with a lot of sauce. You may enjoy yours with a heap of freshly steamed jasmine rice.
11. Mee kola
Originally from the provinces of Pursat and Pailin in western Cambodia, mee kola — a stir-fried noodle dish topped with ground peanuts, deep-fried pork, bean sprouts, boiled duck egg, pickled papaya and cucumbers — made a big wave in Siem Reap a few years back as a fresh addition to the town’s noodle culture. Due to its increasing popularity, the family who introduced this gem opened a much bigger eatery at the end of Wat Bo Street close to the Catholic church. This is where the locals flock to get their fix.
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.