5 must-try Cambodian dishes

CAMBODIAN (or Khmer) cuisine is lesser known than that of neighbouring countries Thailand and Vietnam and their omnipresent dishes. It has similarities to both, but offers its own unique slant with the use of prahok, a fermented fish paste, and an abundance of fish from the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s enormous inland lake and main source of protein for the country.

Spiders for sale. Pic: Liz Ledden.

Fragrant pepper from Kampot province in the country’s south is often stirfried with beef or seafood, and there are local takes on soups, curries, grilled meats and noodle dishes. Rice is the all-important staple food in Cambodia and accompanies nearly every meal. Some must-try Cambodian dishes include:

Fish Amok
One of the most enduringly popular dishes on any Cambodian restaurant’s menu is fish amok – a tasty coconut cream based curry often served wrapped up in banana leaves. The curry is steamed and uses fragrant local herbs and spices that have been pounded into a paste known as kroeung. It’s a bit like a delicate version of a Thai red curry, with similar flavours such as galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass.

Spiders and other insects have long been a protein source for Khmer people, particularly in more isolated parts of the countryside and in times of war and food scarcity. They’re still consumed by some as a crunchy, tasty snack and have experienced a bit of a resurgance due to demand from curious travellers. The small Cambodian town of Skuon is home to large tarantulas that are fried in oil and garlic and served up to passengers on the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap bus route. A less confronting introduction to spiders can be found at Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh, where they are plated up and served in stylish surrounds rather than hawked by the kilo in the dust and heat, Skuon style.

Grilled meat
Dining at a local barbeque restaurant is a must-do in Cambodia and a must-try if you stumble upon one elsewhere. Grilled meat such as beef, pork or prawns are cooked on your table, communal style, and even the otherwise tough local beef becomes tender and palatable once cooked in this way. Grilled meats are usually accompanied by local condiments including prahok (a fermented fish paste that is not for the faint of heart or sensitive of palate) and salt and pepper mixed with lime juice. Barbeque restaurants and beer gardens are one and the same in Cambodia, and you will have ample opportunity to imbibe in some local brews while barbecuing, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Kampot pepper crab
In the picturesque village of Kep on Cambodia’s southern coastline lies a row of ‘crab shacks’ offering one of the country’s most delectable culinary offerings – Kampot pepper crab. The crab is plucked from the sea before your very eyes by fully clothed Khmer women wading out to the crab nets as you perch on rickety wooden decking over the sea. Cut into large pieces and stirfried with a piquant sauce of locally grown, highly fragrant pepper, this is locavore eating in the true Khmer tradition.

Lotus root salad
Cambodia’s fresh salads offer a beautiful combination of texture, colour and flavour, alive with fragrant herbs, citrus juices, crunchy nuts and a hint of chilli. They are similar in concept to the fresh salads found in neighbouring nations, but the best feature local herbs and Cambodian grown vegetables. Lotus root salad is a delicious option, and there are great alternatives featuring jack fruit, green mango or banana flower as the base ingredient.