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Culinary heavyweights, Thailand and Vietnam, often overshadow Khmer food. But once you’ve sampled traditional Cambodian cuisine, you won’t turn back.
One of the best parts about travelling and volunteering in Cambodia is the food. You’ll get a chance to taste local delicacies, eat your weight in street food, and discover the flavorful side of Cambodian culture.
It’s an excellent destination for food lovers wishing to go on a culinary adventure. Here are some of Cambodia’s must-try dishes that are sure to get your taste buds tingling.
What gives Cambodian food its distinct flavour is kroeung, a locally made curry paste
Traditional Cambodian cuisine
Amok– Cambodia’s national dish
There are a variety of versions to sample, but the most authentic and popular option is fish amok. When cooked correctly, the fish almost melts in your mouth, and the texture is silky smooth.
The dish is a combination of fresh river fish, coconut cream, ginger, turmeric and lemongrass, steamed in banana leaves and served with a side of rice.
But what gives amok its distinct flavour is kroeung, a locally made curry paste. Want to make sure you’re getting a traditional version of fish amok? Make sure the dish is steamed and that the fish used is local river fish.
Kuy teav is the most popular Cambodian breakfast and a local specialty.
It’s a rich broth made from dried squid, pork bones, vermicelli noodles and garnished with carrots, greens and turnip.
If you’re volunteering in Phnom Penh, you can try the city’s unique version of kuy teav. Restaurants and street vendors add prawns from the Mekong river, as well as beef offal to make a more hearty dish.
While it’s an unusual breakfast for most travellers, it’s a Cambodian cuisine that packs a flavorful punch.
Khmer red curry
Not a fan of spicy foods? You’ll love Khmer red curry! Unlike its Thai counterpart, this traditional Cambodian food won’t have you downing glasses of milk.
The curry is made with your choice of either chicken, beef or fish. It’s then slowly cooked with potatoes, green beans, eggplant, coconut milk, lemongrass and the essential ingredient, kroeung.
The Khmer red curry is sometimes served with bread instead of rice. It’s an unexpected choice that is a remnant of the French influence over Cambodian cuisine.
Anything and everything is grilled on skewers in Cambodia
Cambodian street food
If you’re looking for a delicious street food BBQ, go for the grilled squid. The squids are brushed with lime juice or fish sauce and served with a traditional Cambodian sauce made from garlic, fresh chilies, lime juice and sugar.
You’ll find vendors selling it at various markets around town and on busy streets. It’s cheap, the portion sizes are impressive, and it’s a great snack to have.
The best place to find grilled squid is usually in the seaside towns like Sihanoukville or Kep. The catch will be fresh, and you’ll often see vendors walking along the shore with their small charcoal-burning ovens.
Originating in Vietnam, lok lak became a firm favourite with Cambodians. Over the centuries, the locals have added their own twist to this classic Southeast Asian dish.
Made from juicy stir-fried meat, it’s topped with a salad of sweet tomato, lettuce, cucumber, onion and seasoned with lime juice and black pepper.
But if you want the authentic lok lak experience, opt to eat it the traditional way – wrapped up in a lettuce leaf.
It’s the perfect on-the-go snack you can grab between your English classes or women’s empowerment workshops.
Similar to the Vietnamese banh mi, it’s a mystery meat sandwich. Various cuts of meat and fresh vegetables such as cucumber and carrots are stuffed inside a baguette.
It’s a popular choice with Cambodian workers. You’ll often find street vendors with their cars parked outside office buildings.
If you want to try a modern twist on this sandwich, head to Nompang in Phnom Penh. The restaurant chain offers a variety of options to choose from, and the portion sizes are substantial.
It’s a delicious break from the typical ham and cheese sandwich and a lunchtime favourite with our community development volunteers.
If you need a caffeine fix to kick-start your day, Cambodian coffee will not disappoint.
Cambodian iced coffee
Unlike coffee found elsewhere, the beans in Southeast Asia are slowly roasted after drying out in the sun. The technique helps to preserve the sugars and oils, giving the roast its signature sweet taste.
While volunteering in Cambodia, you’ll spot the small coffee carts throughout the country. The drip coffee is served black or with condensed milk for a sweeter taste. It’s a refreshing drink that’s popular with the locals in the peak morning hours or after work in the afternoons.
Vegetarian Cambodian food
If you don’t eat meat, you can still sample some delicious and authentic Cambodian dishes.
The country is quite vegetarian-friendly – you just need to know a few key phrases:
- Aht saight: Aht saight translates to “without meat”. As a vegetarian in Cambodia, this will be your go-to phrase. But keep in mind that locals will often pluck the meat out, and the broth and oils are still meat-based.
- Bon lie: Bon lie is the Khmer word for vegetable. If you add it to the end of your order, it will let your server know that you’d prefer the meat in your dish swapped for vegetables.
If you’re not feeling confident in speaking Khmer, you can ask the staff at your hotel or volunteering house to write down your dietary preferences in the local language so you can show it when you order food.
If you’re looking for a vegetarian dish, try kralan, bamboo tubes stuffed with sticky rice, red beans, grated coconut and coconut milk.
Nom Ka Chai
Also known as chive cakes. This is a delicious Cambodian street food snack you’ll find all over the country. It’s made from rice flour, coconut milk and chives. Occasionally, you’ll find variations with kale and other green vegetables. The ingredients are then combined into a batter and fried in hot oil.
Hot tip: Want some extra flavour? Try them with a bit of garlic and chilli sauce.
This is another street food classic. Bamboo tubes are stuffed with sticky rice, red beans, grated coconut and coconut milk and then roasted over charcoal. Once cooked, you peel back the bamboo to enjoy the crispy, sweet treat inside.
Mee cha is stir-fried noodles you can easily find at food stalls. For $1 you can get a massive plate of flat rice noodles served with scallions, bean sprouts and leafy green vegetables.
If you’re at a restaurant, extras like pineapple, carrots and onion are usually added. It’s a simple dish, yet a satisfying and authentic Cambodian cuisine option.
Photos by The Spruce Eats, Tautvaldas Tumenas, Thành Bùi and Andrea Hale.