30 Cambodian foods every visitor needs to try
Cambodian cuisine has a long history and a diverse range of influences, yet it’s only now becoming known beyond the country’s borders. In fact, the only place you can experience all it has to offer is in the country itself. Here are 30 of the best dishes for Globe Aware volunteers to try!
30 Cambodian foods every visitor needs to try
By Lina Goldberg
December 22, 2019
Cambodian cuisine has a long history and a diverse range of influences, yet it’s only now becoming known beyond the country’s borders. In fact, the only place you can experience all it has to offer is in the country itself. Here are 30 of the best dishes to try.
While amok is sometimes called the country’s national dish, and might be the one most familiar to tourists, samlor korkor has a better claim to being the true national dish of Cambodia. It has been eaten for hundreds of years and today can be found in restaurants, roadside stands and family homes alike.
The ingredients list for this nourishing soup is versatile and easily adapted to whatever is seasonal and abundant; it often includes more than a dozen vegetables. It can be made with almost any type of meat, but most commonly it’s a hearty soup made from catfish and pork belly. The soup always includes two quintessential Cambodian ingredients – prahok, a type of fermented fish, and kroeung, a fragrant curry paste – and is then thickened with toasted ground rice.
Nom banh chok: Khmer noodles
Nom banh chok is a beloved Cambodian dish, so much so that in English it’s sometimes called simply “Khmer noodles.” It’s a typical breakfast food, and every morning you’ll find it being sold by women carrying baskets of fresh rice noodles hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders.
The dish consists of fresh noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, fingerroot ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Fresh cucumbers, banana flower, long beans, edible flowers, and wild leaves are heaped on top. In Siem Reap, it is served with a sweet sauce called tuk paem made from palm sugar and peanuts.
Amok is one of the best-known Cambodian dishes, but you’ll find similar meals in neighboring countries. The addition of slok ngor, a local herb that imparts a subtly bitter flavor, separates the Cambodian version from the rest of the pack.
The curry is made with fresh coconut milk and kroeung. Traditionally the dish was made with either fish or snails, but now you can find chicken and even vegetarian versions. At upscale restaurants amok is steamed with egg in a banana leaf for a mousse-like texture, while more homestyle places serve a boiled version that is more like a soupy fish curry.
Bai sach chrouk: Pork and rice
Served early mornings on street corners all over Cambodia, bai sach chrouk, or pork and rice, is one of the simplest and most delicious dishes the country has to offer. Thinly sliced pork is marinated in palm sugar and fish sauce, then slow-grilled over warm coals to impart a smoky sweetness.
It’s served over a hearty portion of white rice, with a helping of freshly pickled cucumbers and daikon radish with plenty of ginger. This classic Cambodia breakfast often comes with a bowl of chicken broth topped with scallions and fried onions.
Kari sach moan: Chicken red curry
Less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand, Cambodian red curry is made using large local red chilies that are remarkably mild, making for a rich but mellow dish. The curry contains chicken, white radish, sweet potatoes, fresh coconut milk, and kroeung. This delicious dish is usually served at weddings and other ceremonies and special occasions, and can be accompanied with fresh rice noodles, sliced baguette, or white rice.
Bok trop pgnon: Pounded eggplant dip
Bok, which translates as “smashed,” refers to a style of food preparation that involves pounding ingredients in a large wooden mortar. Trop pgnon are small, bitter pea eggplants, which grow wild in Cambodia.
Here, they are grilled and pounded with garlic, shallots, chilies and just enough sugar to take the edge off their bitterness. The dish usually contains some form of fish, either smoked fish or prahok, although it can be made without it. The eggplant dip is served alongside local fresh or steamed vegetable crudités.
Bok trop pgnon was traditionally prepared for workers harvesting rice, because it was easy to pack up to take to the fields.
Kha sach ko: Beef stewed in palm sugar
The word kha refers to a style of cooking in Cambodia in which palm sugar is caramelized into a sticky syrup, then used as the base of the dish. The beef version tastes marvelously complex — it contains multitudes — although the recipe itself is not very complicated. Every family has its own recipe, but most start with the kha base and include galangal, chilies, garlic, black pepper, and star anise.
Some versions include cloves, or make the broth with coconut water; others add tomatoes, tamarind, or soybean sauce. Kha sach ko is served with sliced baguette — in a nod to French imperialism — or noodles, and garnished with herbs, onion slices, and fried garlic.
Prahok ktis: Creamy prahok dip
After rice, the most important ingredient in Cambodian cuisine is prahok, a mash of salty fermented fish. It’s added in small quantities to bring an umami kick to many dishes, but in prahok ktis it has the starring role.
Cooked with fresh coconut cream, palm sugar, and minced pork, the pungent prahok becomes mild enough for even trepidatious visitors to enjoy. Another version of the dish, prahok kroeung ktis, adds a fragrant paste of root spices. Both are served with crunchy fresh vegetables.
Sngor chruak sach trei: Sour fish soup
Soups are a crucial element in Cambodian cuisine, and no meal is complete without one. The soups known as sngors are simple and extremely versatile. They’re designed to showcase the main ingredient, in this case, fish from the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great freshwater lake.
The fish is cooked in a light lemongrass broth that’s seasoned with lime juice and fried garlic, making for a wholesome soup served with local herbs, including Asian basil and sawleaf coriander. Other additions, such as straw mushrooms or shredded green mango, are optional.
Kari saraman: Beef saraman curry
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. In fact, the most respected beef sellers at the local markets in Siem Reap are Cham women.
Beef saraman curry is the most popular Cham-inspired dish, and little wonder, because it’s sensational. This rich coconut curry is one of Cambodia’s most complicated dishes, and is redolent with spices, with star anise and cassia bark most prominent. The curry is braised with whole peanuts and is most often served with sliced baguette.
Nhoam krauch thlong: Pomelo salad
Cambodian salads often use unripe or sour fruits in place of vegetables. In this delicious and refreshing example, giant pomelo is paired with pork belly, toasted coconut, and small dried shrimp and garnished with mint and fried shallots.
More exacting chefs pride themselves on peeling each segment of the pomelo and separating the tiny juice vesicles inside, laborious work that pays off in a delicate, beautifully balanced salad.
One of Cambodia’s best-loved foods, tuek kroeung is a thin but pungent dipping sauce made from fresh river fish and fermented fish, served with an array of fresh seasonal vegetables and herbs.
The name can be a bit confusing — the word kroeung is most often used for one of the delicate curry pastes that are a hallmark of Cambodian cooking, but which aren’t used in tuek kroeung. In fact kroeung just means “what’s inside” or “ingredients.”
Kha trei svay kchai: Caramelized fish with green mango
Trei roh, or striped snakehead fish, is one of the few fish able to walk on land and in Cambodian markets they can often be seen jumping out of vendors’ baskets and trying to hustle away down the pavement. They rarely succeed, and when they don’t, becoming a plate of kha trei is often their fate.
First, thick steaks are placed in a pot of bubbling, caramelized palm sugar, garlic, and fish sauce, plus plenty of locally grown ground black pepper. Quartered red tomatoes are often added.
To avoid breaking up the fish the dish is not stirred – instead, the pot is lightly shaken to distribute the caramel syrup evenly. The fish is then served topped with grated green mango and Asian basil.
Kangkep baob: Stuffed frogs
Served at roadside barbecues all over Cambodia, stuffed frogs can be an intimidating sight for timid visitors, but any fearfulness disappears at the first taste.
Frogs are stuffed with minced pork, roasted peanuts, red chilies, frog meat and fresh kroeung made from lemongrass, garlic, galangal, turmeric and the zest of makrut limes. Grilled inside split pieces of bamboo over hot coals, the resulting snack is like a frog sausage, rich with root spices and slightly sweetened by palm sugar.
Mi kola: Kola noodles
The Kola are an ethnic minority in Cambodia, originally from Yunnan, China, and the Mon and Shan states of Myanmar, who settled in northeastern Cambodia in the 19th century.
These days, there are more street food stands and restaurants serving the noodle dish named for them than there are Kola people in Cambodia. Rice noodles are garnished with dried shrimp, hard-boiled egg slices, cucumbers, peanuts, and fresh herbs and mixed with a tangy lime-garlic-shallot dressing.
Pork is optional but often included, and you’ll usually be served a tangy mix of fresh cucumber and green papaya pickle on the side.
Chrok krao chhnang: Out of the pot soup
The name of this soup refers to the cooking technique: Rather than preparing it in a pot over a flame, like most Cambodian soups, for chrok krao chhnang the cook assembles the ingredients in a large bowl, then pours boiling water over them to create a broth.
The main ingredients are smoked or dried freshwater fish, hard-boiled eggs, shallots, and green tomatoes. The soup gets additional flavor from fresh herbs (such as sawleaf coriander and Asian basil), sugar, and a squeeze of lime juice. Served with rice, the soup offers a mix of salty, sweet, and sour flavors and a perfectly balanced meal.
Plea sach ko: Lime-marinated beef salad
Khmer beef salad features thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or “cooked” ceviche-style by marinating it in lime juice. Dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans, and green pepper, this sweet and salty dish also packs a punch in the heul (spicy) department with copious amounts of fresh red chilies. More beef than salad, plea sach ko is a party dish that is served at festive occasions such as weddings, or alongside beer during a night out on the town.
Chha trop dott: Grilled eggplant with pork
This simple dish is one of Cambodia’s most accessible, and it’s easy to make at home, too! Eggplant is grilled over an open flame or hot coals, then topped with minced pork fried in garlic and oyster sauce. Herbs are sprinkled over the top, sometimes Asian basil or spring onions or coriander.
More upscale versions may be enriched with egg or served in the hollowed-out charred eggplant skin. Although it has only a few ingredients, when it’s done well it’s heavenly.
Chaa kdam meric kchai: Fried crab with green pepper
Local crab is a specialty of the Cambodian seaside town of Kep. Its lively crab market is known for fried crab prepared with green, locally grown Kampot pepper.
Aromatic Cambodian pepper is famous among gourmands worldwide, and although it is available in its dried form internationally, you’ll only be able to sample the distinctively flavored immature green peppercorns in Cambodia. It’s worth a visit to Kep for that alone, and for a related dish, chaa kdam kroeung, fried crab with curry sauce.
Samlor m’chu kroeung sach ko: Lemongrass beef sour soup
This delicious soup is the perfect antidote to a hangover, a cold, or a rainy tropical day. It comes in two styles: plain or ktis, with coconut milk. The soup’s base is prahok and a kroeung made of sliced lemongrass stalks, galangal, makrut lime, turmeric, and garlic. When coconut milk is omitted, fresh curry leaves that have been brushed over hot coals are used.
The creamy version pairs coconut milk with ripe tamarind, to impart tangy sourness, and holy basil or sawleaf coriander round off a simple but richly restorative soup. Often water spinach or ambarella leaves are added, and sometimes even eggplant.
Maam chao: Raw fermented fish
More adventurous eaters will enjoy maam chao, a dish made with a type of raw, fermented fish known as maam. Roasted rice, galangal, and sugar are added to freshwater fish and left to ferment for at least a month.
Compared to prahok, maam is delicately flavored (as far as fermented fish goes), its salty pungency balanced by the sweetness of the palm sugar. Maam chao is most often served as a dip mixed with pineapple, alongside boiled pork and crunchy raw vegetables.
Somlor proher: Fragrant vegetable soup
This aromatic vegetable soup is a Cambodian village staple and one of the country’s most popular. The soup’s base is a lemongrass paste made with fingerroot ginger, and it can be made with any number of vegetables, usually home grown or foraged.
Pumpkin, taro, and luffa gourd are common ingredients, and lemon basil is such an important part of the dish, that in Cambodia its name translates as “the herb for somlor proher.” The soup usually contains fish, fermented, dried, and fresh, but it can also easily be made “mhob bouh,” “as the monks eat” – an expression meaning vegetarian, even though Cambodian monks don’t necessarily avoid meat.
Ang dtray meuk: Grilled squid with Koh Kong sauce
In Cambodian seaside towns you’ll find seafood sellers carrying small charcoal-burning ovens on their shoulders, cooking the squid as they walk along the shore.
The squid are brushed with either lime juice or fish sauce and then barbecued on wooden skewers and served with a spicy chili sauce originally from the seaside province of Koh Kong, made from garlic, fresh chilies, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar.
Nhoam svay kchai: Green mango salad
The main ingredient in a Cambodian salad, or nhoam, may vary, be it ambarella, banana blossom, cucumber, or lotus root, but the chi, or herbs, remain the same. Traditionally, four herbs are used: Asian basil, mint, Cambodian mint, and fish-cheek herb, a heart-shaped leaf grown in Southeast Asia whose flavor is reminiscent of the sea.
Cambodian salads are often made with unripe fruit and usually contain smoked fish and small dried shrimp. Green mango salad is a classic whose flavors of sour fruit, salty smoked fish, and sweet palm sugar form a beautifully harmonious whole.
Aluek trei ngeat: Dried fish and watermelon
This unexpected combination of dried fish and fresh fruit perfectly encapsulates the delicious simplicity of Cambodian cuisine. Trei ngeat is the term for salt-cured fish that has been dried in the sun, one of the myriad ways Cambodians preserve food using the same techniques they’ve relied on for centuries.
In this dish, snakehead fish, abundant in the country’s waterways, are salted and dried, then grilled over charcoal and served with thick chunks of sweet ripe watermelon, for a perfect sweet-and-umami contrast.
Chaa angrong sach ko: Red tree ants with beef and holy basil
You’ll find all sorts of insects on the menu in Cambodia, but the dish most appealing to foreign palates is stir-fried red tree ants with beef and holy basil.
The tree-dwelling red weaver ant, some barely visible and others almost an inch long, are stir-fried with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and thinly sliced beef. Lots of chilies complete the aromatic dish, without overpowering the delicate sour flavor that the ants impart to the beef. This meal is served with rice, and if you’re lucky you’ll also get a portion of ant larvae in your bowl.
Kuy teav: Noodle soup
Every country in Southeast Asia has its own version of noodle soup, and kuy teav is Cambodia’s, a flavorful pork-bone-and-squid broth most often served with pork or beef, fish balls and fried garlic.
The name derives from the Hoikken Chinese word for a type of rice noodle, and theories about the origins of kuy teav include the possibility that it was invented by Chinese traders in Cambodia or originated in Kampuchea Krom, an area in southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer Empire. Whatever its roots, kuy teav is is one of the country’s most popular breakfasts and afternoon snacks.
Sngor ngam nov sach moan: Pickled lime soup with chicken
Pickled limes give this chicken soup a unique flavor evocative of Moroccan cooking. Limes are packed in salt and left to dry in the sun, or boiled briefly and soaked in salt water for several weeks or months.
The flavor is intensely citrusy and salty, but not bitter. Traditionally this soup is made with little more than pickled limes and free-range chicken, both of which are so flavorful that the dish needs nothing else, although garlic and spring onions are commonly added.
Num ansom: Sticky rice cakes
These sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves are so emblematic of Cambodia that in 2015 the government made a giant num ansom weighing 8,900 pounds and displayed it in front of Angkor Wat to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The cakes can be sweet or savory, filled with bananas and coconut or pork and mung beans. For major celebrations, such as Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day), women spend days making hundreds of num ansom to share with family and friends and give to monks at the pagoda.
Trei boeng kanh chhet: Fried fish in the lake
“Fried fish in the lake” is a party dish, often eaten at restaurants in a special fish-shaped dish. A whole fish is deep-fried and then finished on a hotplate at the table in a coconut curry made from yellow kroeung and chilies.
Vegetables such as cauliflower and cabbage are cooked in the curry, which is served with rice or rice noodles. Its name literally means “fish in the water mimosa lake,” which refers to the green Cambodian vegetable that serves as the base of the dish.