By: Nadia Flint
Cambodian food is predominantly influenced by rice and fish. The country is covered with wetlands, and the monsoon rains, which begin in April, inundate the vibrant green rice paddies throughout the country. The Mekong River which travels through the heart of the country holds an astonishing number of freshwater fish, and Tonle Sap Lake is believed to have more fish than any other lake in the world. Therefore it is not surprising that rice and fish are staple ingredients in Cambodian cuisine; rice especially is eaten every day and with most meals and one key ingredient which signifies food as distinctly Cambodian is prahok, a crushed, salted, and fermented fish paste.
Khmer cuisine has much in common with neighbouring Thailand; they both use a combination of spices and flavours to create a delicate balance between saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness, although Cambodian food tends to use less sugar and coconut cream for flavour. Most notably, Cambodians also tend to use less chilli, and as a result traditional dishes often dont have the bite which Thai food is well known for.
Vietnam and Cambodia share some French influences in their cuisine. The baguette is known as nom pang in Khmer, and delicious, crispy baguettes can be found throughout both Vietnam and Cambodia. Nom pang can also mean a type of sandwich, similar to the banh mi in Vietnam. Delicious nom pang can be found at many street stalls, and is usually filled with sliced or minced meat (with Cambodian flavours, of course) and served with fresh salad and pickled vegetables. What most people know as Vietnamese coffee is also very popular in Cambodia; traditionally brewed in a Phin filter and sweetened with condensed milk.
Cambodian curries also show traces of cultural influences from India, with spice pastes blended from a mix of cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. To give Cambodian flavours to the curry pastes, local ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander and galangal are used.
So what are some local dishes which definitely should not be missed when visiting Cambodia?
For breakfast, you cant go past Nom Banh Chok, sometimes also referred to as Khmer noodles. Nom Banh Chok is typical breakfast food in Cambodia and consists of rice noddles topped with aromatic green fish gravy, garnished with fresh mint leaves, green beans, bean sprouts and sometimes cucumber, which gives a pleasant crunch to the dish. Additional flavour also comes from lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric root.
Fish amok is a traditional Cambodian dish not to be missed. It consists of seafood covered with coconut milk and kroeung (a Cambodia curry paste) and steamed in banana leaves.
The Khmer Red Curry is less spicy than the red curries of neighbouring Thailand, but still very full of flavour. It can include chicken, beef or fish plus green beans, eggplant, potatoes, lemon grass, coconut milk and kroeung.
If desserts are more your thing, sticky rice is a great option, often accompanied by tropical fruits such as mango, durian and coconut milk.
To learn more about the Cambodian cuisine when travelling through the country, there are cooking classes available, mainly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Its a great way to learn more about preparing Khmer dishes using traditional methods, such as pounding herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle or steaming foods in locally sourced banana leaves. Most classes will also include a trip to the local markets to learn more about Cambodian vegetables and herbs, and you will usually be given a recipe book to take home with you. Its a great way for tourists to share the local culinary experiences.