The cuisine of the Southeast Asian kingdom is in crisis: not only is the street food scene thriving, but recipes and traditions once lost to the shadows of history are also experiencing a revival.
Posted on December 10, 2021
•9 minute read
This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveler (UK).
The herbs are all on one level and the vegetables on another,” says chef Luu Meng. “This herb is sa om and it smells like asparagus.” He holds the sharp blades under my nose. “And our basil is really lemony. European chefs don't understand how sour Cambodian herbs are; It is better to use them whole or in pieces than mixed”.
In Phnom Penh's dimly lit Phsar Boeung Keng Kang market, the aisles have become streams of shoppers. I struggle to stay afloat and keep an eye on Luu, distracted by the stalls around me, each one an explosion of color and arranged with military precision. The chef is heading towards a fish stand and I almost miss him. "It's rare to find tongue fish in the market, so I buy anything when I see it," he says.
Chef Luu Meng is a man on a mission. “Cambodia's Gordon Ramsay,” as one local wryly told me, is committed to bringing Cambodian cuisine back to the world stage after spending years in the gastronomic shadows of Thailand and Vietnam. His story is inspiring: After his family fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Cooking is in his blood: his grandmother was a chef at the Royal Palace, his mother ran a noodle stall on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Nicknamed the 'Pearl of Asia' for much of the 20th century, Phnom Penh is an alluring city. Elegant French and Khmer architecture, along with an abundance of picturesque pagodas on the banks of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap, made the pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian capital one of the most heady centers of Southeast Asia. Today, it's bouncing back with a thriving bar scene, lively cafe culture, and a variety of excellent restaurants, including Luu's Kroeung Garden Restaurant.
When we go there, the workplaces are set up on the green balcony. We're making his signature soup, Samlor Prahal. No Cambodian meal would be complete without a light, tangy soup like this. "Cambodian cuisine has borrowed influences from its neighbors, but there are subtle differences," Luu says as she chops up the ingredients. “It's not as spicy or as sweet as Thai; our food is slightly spicy and we use less fish sauce than in vietnam. We use spices, but fresh, not powdered like in India. Everything is fresh in the Khmer kitchen.”
Another important maxim of Cambodian cuisine is that one should not rush; The soup takes three to four hours to prepare and the key ingredient is kroeung, the fresh herb and spice paste that is the base of so many Cambodian dishes and the inspiration behind the restaurant, and its name. "It's all about slow cooking," says Luu.
Mash the fresh turmeric, garlic, ginger, galangal, chili, shallots and lemongrass in a bowl, then add the paste to the broth. Luu adds a handful of winter melon, a soft zucchini-like vegetable, to the soup, along with a drizzle of fish sauce and chunks of river fish, handing me a spoonful to taste. It is refreshingly light and aromatic.
"In Cambodia, the focus is on local specialties," he says. “Everyone knows that the best chicken comes from Siem Reap, the best rice from Battambang, the best coconut from Kampot.” Luu has a firm grip on the country's regional cuisine. After stints as a chef in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Meng returned to Cambodia and hit the road. For six months he traveled the country, discovering forgotten Khmer dishes lost during the Khmer Rouge genocide, researching local specialties and refining recipes to create a new style of Cambodian cuisine geared to the modern palate.
Similar to Luu's travels, I head south to Kampot, an estuary town known for its many French colonial buildings. It's home to a culinary success story of its own: its namesake pepper, which received PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2016, putting it in the same category as champagne and Cornish pasty. It is a product with a remarkable heritage that has been cultivated here for more than seven centuries; The climate between the mountains and the coast produces an unmistakably aromatic pepper. At the beginning of the 20th century, the nightf worth using anything but Kampot pepper, but then came the Khmer Rouge.
The regime had little interest in Kampot pepper and forced the urban population to till the land, especially to grow rice. As a result, the plantations were abandoned and some farmers fled the country. Only when the last fighters of the regime came down from the mountains and laid down their arms in the late 1970s, were the plantations gradually rebuilt and the tradition continued.
While in Kampot, I visit La Plantation, a pepper farm partly owned by Luu. As I pass through clouds of red dust on a bumpy road, the restored Khmer-style buildings of La Plantation come into view. Founded in 2013 by a Franco-Belgian couple, Guy Porre and Nathalie Chaboche, the farm offers free guided tours, tastings and classes.
Under a scorching sun, my guide and I meandered between the trellises on pepper strings. As the color of the berries changes, so do their flavor profiles, I'm learning: salt-fermented green bell pepper pairs well with goat cheese and caramelized duck; black pepper, the bulk of the crop, has notes of chocolate, mint, and eucalyptus, complementing game and charcuterie; while red pepper is fruity, floral, and delicious when paired with fish or ground over ripe strawberries.
While Kampot pepper is enjoying renewed popularity, Phnom Penh's street food scene is also taking hold. Back in the capital, I hop into a tuk tuk and stutter through clogged arteries lined with temples to join writer, tour guide, and movie location scout Nick Ray at the art deco Central Market for a food “safari.” street. "Everyone has heard of the street food in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City," he says, "but Phnom Penh should be just as famous."
We wander through aisles lined with dried fish: catfish, snakehead, squid. “The dried fish is salty, but it grills very well and is dipped in mango sauce.” Crayfish, he tells me, is fermented in salt for five days, then cooked with lemon, basil, sugar, and chili.
We cruised from stall to stall, gorging on grilled beef skewers with pickled baby papaya at Phsar Tapang, and grabbing a roadside bench for a bowl of lort cha, a bowl of fried rice noodles in a hot dish with bean sprouts, cabbage, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce, then topped with a fried egg.
"Lort cha is a popular cheap lunch," Nick says as we take our fix. "All the vending carts play different tunes, like ice cream trucks." It's thirsty work, so we end our tour with a drink at Juniper Gin Bar, featuring drinks from Phnom Penh's first craft distillery, Seekers Spirits. I opt for the Mekong G&T mixed with kaffir lime leaves. It's packed with native botanicals like lemongrass, grapefruit, galangal, and lemon-flavored Khmer basil. It's Cambodia in a glass.
How's it going
Singapore AirlinesYVietnam airwaysfly from Heathrow to Phnom Penh via Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City respectively.
audley journeyoffers a customized 11-day trip to Cambodia from £2,280 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation, and can arrange chef-led cooking classes.
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveler Food.
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What is street food in Cambodia? ›
Chet Chien is one of the most famous Cambodian street foods in Siem Reap which consists of fried spring roll wrappers that are filled with bananas. The wrappers are covered with sesame seeds. Once they are deep-fried, they are sprinkled with powdered sugar and usually served with vanilla or Kampot pepper ice cream.What is the popular snack in Cambodia street food? ›
- Fish Amok. Made from fish, coconut cream, and curry paste, amok is so popular that it can be considered the national dish of Cambodia. ...
- Cambodian-Style Spring Rolls. ...
- Kdam Chaa. ...
- Lort Cha. ...
- Bai Sach Chrouk. ...
- Cambodian-Style Hot Pot. ...
- Cha Houy Teuk. ...
- Pickled Fruit.
Rice is Cambodia's major crop, its principal food, and, in times of peace, its most important export commodity. Rice is grown on most of the country's total cultivated land area.What is the most popular dish in Cambodia? ›
1. Amok (Coconut fish curry) Amok trey is Cambodia's national dish, a fragrant and spicy coconut fish curry tenderly steamed in banana leaves, which gives it a mousse-like texture which all but makes it melt in the mouth. The blended spice paste, kroeung, is also added to the dish.What is unique about Cambodian food? ›
Unlike the cuisine of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam (which can really pack a spicy punch), Cambodian food is subtler with its spices. Sturdy ingredients include garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric and galangal, which are usually pounded into a kroeung (paste) and commonly used in cooking.What are the main ingredients of Cambodian food? ›
Tamarind, shallots, palm sugar, garlic, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, star anise, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (which grows wild in the mountain range of the same name, in the southwest part of Cambodia), mint, sweet basil, kaffir lime and leaves, cilantro, ma-om (rice paddy herb), and other wild plants play a ...Can you eat street food in Cambodia? ›
You just need to choose wisely. The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria. And despite what you may have heard, the ice in Cambodia is generally safe to consume. “Street food has two advantages over food cooked in restaurants: transparency and immediacy.What is the main meat in Cambodia? ›
The Cham people are a Muslim ethnic minority in Cambodia. Their cuisine eschews pork, which is widely found in Cambodian cooking, and instead features beef.What fruit is Cambodia known for? ›
Durian. Known as “Thouren” in Khmer, durian is frequently called the “King” of tropical fruits. It's recognisable from a great distance thanks to its relatively huge size and distinctively mud-green, spiky rind.What does Yum Yum mean in Cambodia? ›
Lloyd: “Yum Yum”, in the vernacular of Cambodia's sex trade, is oral sex. The children repeat these words like a mantra.
What is unique about Cambodian culture? ›
Throughout Cambodia's long history, religion has been a major source of cultural inspiration. Over nearly two millennia, Cambodians have developed a unique Khmer culture and belief system from the syncretism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.What is the best food in Cambodia why it is the best one? ›
1. Fish Amok. Fish Amok is considered as the Cambodian national dish and is extremely popular in the region. This dish is composed of a rich and creamy curry like sauce that is the perfect balance of ginger, lemongrass, turmeric and coconut milk.What are some important traditions in Cambodia culture? ›
- Cheers. In most countries across the world, it's custom to “cheers” in some form before sipping a drink. ...
- Keep calm and carry on. ...
- Dress code. ...
- Lose the shoes. ...
- Know your head from your toes. ...
- How to say hello. ...
- Hand it over. ...
- Chopstick rules.
The most popular is perhaps the mango, often eaten green and dipped in a chilli, salt, sugar dip for a snack, or ripe as a sweet treat. This list of fruits in Cambodia includes local native, introduced species, and imported fruits commonly seen at the market.What is Cambodia food flavors? ›
Cambodian cuisine is distinctively extremely spicy. The majority of dishes are flavored with lemongrass, coriander, ginger and prahok, the essential fermented and salted fish sauce. However, the most famous ingredient is kampot, a moderately mild pepper.What vegetables do Cambodians eat? ›
Favorite vegetables include beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, lettuce, onions, peas, potatoes, and sweet corn. Vegetables are commonly eaten during the main part of a meal. They may be served raw in a salad, cooked and served with a sauce, or added to a soup.Is chewing gum illegal in Cambodia? ›
Coffee, ice cream, syrup water, chocolate, chewing gum, jelly, doughnuts and sweets are also all banned. The directive also prohibits foods that are too salty, fatty and high in sugar.What time do people eat dinner in Cambodia? ›
Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. It is the main meal of the day. It is generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice and is similar to lunch except often more dishes are served. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried dishes and soups.How healthy is Cambodian food? ›
The Cambodian diet is naturally nutritious, full of fish and other seafood, vegetables and fruit. Unlike the average American diet, Cambodian meals are generally low-fat and low- calorie. Local Cambodians say there's not much in the diet to watch out for.How is Cambodian food different from Vietnamese food? ›
With Vietnamese and Lao cuisine it shares the French influence as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all part of the French Indochina. Khmer dishes are less salty than Vietnamese food in general, and less sweet, sourer and more citrusy than South Vietnamese food.
How much money do you need per day in Cambodia? ›
In general, I'd recommend expecting to spend around $5 a day if you're on a tight backpacker budget, $15 a day if you'll be occasionally eating Western food restaurants, and $25 a day if you plan on eating at higher-end restaurants.What is rat street food in Cambodia? ›
In Cambodia, sellers cook the rat over charcoal and serve it accompanied by dipping sauces made from lime juice and black pepper or fish sauce and chilies. The skin is salty and rich, similar to roast chicken, while the meat itself has the savoriness of pork. Most Cambodians pair it with a local lager, such as Angkor.What made Cambodia famous? ›
In addition to the magnificence of Angkor and the horror of the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia has a complex cultural tapestry and a fascinating and long history. Cambodia is also famous for beautiful and sunny beaches, lush natural attractions, delicious food and the charming capital city of Phnom Penh.What is Cambodia mango called? ›
Mango trees have been cultivated in the Kingdom of Cambodia for thousands of years. The richly flavoured Keo Romeat Mango is one of a variety of mangos grown in Cambodia. Known for their sweetness, the taste of Cambodian mangoes will be different from one location to another.What is Cambodia national plant? ›
Recognised across Southeast Asia, the national tree of Cambodia is the Tnaot (Khmer), or Borassus flabellifer. A type of palm tree, this popular plant represents Khmer society, because it shows the extent of Khmer territory from ancient times until today.What is burp in Khmer? ›
English-Khmer Dictionary. burp ( n. ) [ bGp ] ភើWhat does Koh mean in Cambodian? ›
Koh (កោះ Kaôh [kɑh]), a Khmer word meaning 'island', found in names of islands of Cambodia.What are Cambodian cultural taboos? ›
To touch someone on the top of their head, especially a baby or child, is taboo and insensitive. When standing or posing for a photograph, it is considered rude for a younger person to place their hand on an elder's shoulder. It is impolite for someone to walk over another person that is sitting or lying down.What are Cambodians proud of? ›
Angkor Wat, the symbolic ancient masterclass of architecture, is undoubtedly the proudest thing, which every Cambodian brag about and continue to do so. It has been symbolized as a national pride and registered as the world heritage since 1992.What is the superstition in Cambodia? ›
If you and your friend smell the same flower one after another, both of you will share your future husband in some way. If you sing while you are cooking, you will marry a widow or widower. Cambodian men and women usually count the sound of the gecko crying in order to check out about their future husband or wife.
What do Cambodians value? ›
People in Cambodia place great value on interpersonal relationships. One's relationships with others dictate their prioritization of time – which is just such an interesting concept!What are some Cambodian values? ›
PHNOM PENH --In a nearly forgotten time, Cambodian Society valued a person on the basis of four crucial elements: honesty, wisdom, patriotism, and wealth. With the arrival of the 21st century, wealth has become the first priority on the Cambodian society's scale of value.What are the values of Cambodian family? ›
Everyone is expected to support, care for and show respect towards their elders. Individuals also have a responsibility to help maintain the reputation of their family, as families have a collective face . There are also specific roles designated to certain family members.Is Thai and Cambodian food the same? ›
It's common to find a mixture of spicy, sour, pungent, and salty dishes across a Cambodian table, whereas Thai cooking is more about achieving a balance of flavours within the bowl. Rhizomes and roots such as taro, turmeric and ginger are much more prevalent in Cambodian food than Thai.What is a typical Cambodian breakfast? ›
Cambodia's quintessential breakfast dish is num banh chok – often referred to simply as 'Khmer noodles' – is composed of fresh rice noodles with a subtle curry made from locally caught Tonle Sap fish.What is the main fruit of Cambodia? ›
Bananas are the most prominently cultivated fruit in Cambodia. The international demand for bananas, especially from China, has boosted production in the country. The number of Cambodian banana-planting enterprises approved to export to China has increased in recent years.Is Cambodian food like Chinese food? ›
Over centuries, Cambodian cuisine has incorporated elements of Indian, Chinese and more recently French cuisine, and due to some of these shared influences and mutual interaction, it has many similarities with the neighbouring Thai, Vietnamese and Lao cuisines.What time is lunch in Cambodia? ›
In Cambodia, offices are generally open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday, with lunchtime from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm.What time do Cambodians eat dinner? ›
Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. It is the main meal of the day. It is generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice and is similar to lunch except often more dishes are served. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried dishes and soups.What is the national leaf of Cambodia? ›
Romduol became Cambodia's national flower in 2005. With a yellowish-white flower and a single alternate leaf, the plant reaches a height of 8 to 12 metres, and bears edible fruit. Romduol can be found almost everywhere in Cambodia.
Why is Cambodia known? ›
In addition to the magnificence of Angkor and the horror of the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia has a complex cultural tapestry and a fascinating and long history. Cambodia is also famous for beautiful and sunny beaches, lush natural attractions, delicious food and the charming capital city of Phnom Penh.What is the traditional drink of Cambodia? ›
Sombai (from Khmer: សុំបាយ – "some rice, please") is a liqueur manufacturer in Siem Reap founded in 2012. Its beverages have become a national drink of Cambodia and symbolic of Siem Reap. Sombai is one of the most popular brands in Cambodia.What is unique in Cambodia? ›
1. It is the only flag that features a building. Out of all 195 countries in the world, Cambodia is the only one that features a building on their flag. Featuring a depiction of the world-renowned Angkor Wat, it symbolizes justice, integrity, and heritage.