The temples of Angkor might be its most popular drawcard but for this very hungry family, Cambodia’s epicurean enchantments come a close second.
Cambodian cuisine has, in recent decades, lived in the shadow of its two culinary heavyweight neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, but the culinary foundation of both cuisines was Angkor, when Southern Vietnam and a large part of Thailand were part of the Khmer Empire. However, if you’re looking for a simile of Thai or Vietnamese on your Cambodian plate, you might be disappointed. Of course, you will find the regional love of carefully balanced sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours, but there’s more to Cambodian cooking than that.
Centuries of external influence, from Chinese and Indian traders, as well as the gastronomic input of French colonists has seen Cambodia’s cuisine develop into something exceptionally unique. Cambodia’s culinary traditions were very nearly lost to civil war, as cookbooks were deigned too bourgeois and, along with almost 80 percent of all written works in Khmer, were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the years of Pol Pot’s genocidal rule. Today following years of diligence by Cambodian chefs to re-record and revive the quintessential recipes of Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge heritage, the country’s national cuisine is making enjoying something of a renaissance.
Popular Cambodian cuisine
Protein heavy and frequently flavoured with pungent prahok, a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste that’s seen as an essential ingredient in Cambodian kitchens, most Cambodian cuisine is served with a side of rice or noodles. Due to its location, freshwater fish also plays a big part in the country’s cuisine.
The national dish is Amok trey, a sublime coconut fish curry that is steamed to soufflé-like perfection in banana leaves. Other popular dishes include gnoam trayong chek: fragrant and crunchy banana flower salad, prahok ktis: a pungent dip of fermented fish, minced pork, pea eggplants and coconut and plea sach ko: Lime-marinated beef salad and a variety of fragrant fish-stuffed salads,
In Cambodia’s southern cities of Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep, fresh seafood is a bigger focus. Fish, squid, lobster, prawn, crab and shellfish are pulled fresh from the ocean and sold from seafood shacks along the beach. Stuffed and barbecued Kampot squid is one of our favourites, the charred squid stuffed full of pork mince, noodles and aromatics devoured happily by my toothsome twosome.
Many of the restaurants and cafes in Cambodia’s more popular tourist regions serve up dishes that have been modified for Western palates, so we reckon Cambodia’s markets – Phsar Leu Market is a favourite – should be your first port of call if you are after a genuine taste of Khmer cuisine. Amongst the market meals that Raff and I loved were Nom Banh Chok – a breakfast dish of thin rice noodles served with fish gravy and freshly foraged green vegetables, and lort cha – short rice-flour noodles fried with garlic, bean sprouts and chives, that bear a striking resemblance to a plate of worms.
Nom kachai – fried glutinous rice cakes dotted with chives and served with a vinegar and sweet pepper sauce – is always a good idea, unless you’re counting calories. And should you be craving something sweet, chet chien – bananas deep fried in spring roll wrappers, or a couple of crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside noum kong (the Khmer take on a doughnut), should do the trick.
If you, like us, are inclined to walk on the culinary wild side, you can also partake in jerky-style frog, barbecued snake on a stick and deep-fried crickets, which are sold on the streets like bags of popcorn.
Throw another frog on the barbie
Like Aussies, Cambodians love a barbie, and while it’s not unheard of to find shrimp (or humongous prawns) they do tend to do things a little differently to us. Forget the snags and lamb chops, instead expect to find a bunch of (sometimes indistinguishable) stuff on sticks, cooking over charcoal fires.
We joined dozens of local families gathered on roadside mats to dine on a variety of Cambodian barbecue delights at Siem Reap’s 60 Road. Sizzle central, the street is lined with vendors serving up skewered whole fish and chicken, little red balls of sweet Cambodian pork sausage and a smorgasbord of random offal and organs javelined on bamboo sticks. Then there’s the stuffed skewered frogs and coiled snake shish kebabs, and the odd penis from what I imagine is a cow with a fairly high-pitched moo.
This is a local street market and there is very little English spoken so if you’re a nervous eater, we suggest to have a guide or host to help you distinguish fish from frog and pork sausage from pork sword. The atmosphere is amazing and a rickety fun fair at the end of the strip makes for a fun end to the evening.
Already suffering from a lack of sustenance at the end of the Vietnam War, a catastrophic famine followed the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. The Khmer Rouge forced its already malnourished people into slave labour on collective farms. The rice yields were insufficient to feed the population so consuming insects, a great source of nutrition, became the difference between life and death.
Despite Cambodia today forging a brighter new future, the popularity of creepy crawly cuisine hasn’t faltered. Indeed, it’s a culinary trend the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization believes the rest of the world would be wise to acquire, as bugs are not only healthy for our bodies, but also the environment, as they produce significantly lower emissions than other proteins.
While you’ll find tarantula treats all across the country, the town of Skuon is spider central. The market town, about 90 minutes from Phnom Penh on National Highway 6, is crawling with them. At least it would be if they weren’t already boiled, dusted in batter and fried in oil. At first bite, the legs of the sautéed spiders are quite crunchy and not unlike a slightly hairy crisp, but the abdomen does not. Soft and filled with a white meat, it does not taste even remotely like chicken and I gave seconds a hard pass.
That’s not to say, bugs were entirely off the menu. We enjoyed a bug buffet at Bugs Café , an insect tapas restaurant in Siem Reap that turns the little crawling beasties into gourmet grub.
There are even actual grubs on the menu if you’re partial to silk worm stir fry. Our multi-course meal made use of scorpions, spiders, ants and crickets, and the entire meal, aside from a stomach curling skewer of giant waterbugs (that looked cockroaches on steroid), was surprisingly delicious.
Food served with a side of heart
We believe it is essential to teach our kids to give a little back to local communities when we travel and certainly found plenty of opportunities when travelling with kids in Cambodia, especially when it came to food. We enjoyed unforgettable western and Cambodian culinary experiences at several NGO cafes and restaurants.
These socially responsible eateries employ and train vulnerable street children in an effort to help break the cycle of poverty. Marum, in Siem Reap, is our top pick, not only for its fabulous food and pretty al fresco setting on one of the city’s loveliest streets, but for its work with street children and marginalised young people.
Phnom Penh’s Friends the Restaurant, located near the National Museum, is also excellent, training Khmer street children and marginalised youth in the restaurant trade, while Epic Arts Café in Kampot, provides work opportunities for deaf and disabled people.
CAMBODIA – NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
November to March is the most popular time to travel with little rain and less humidity.
Kmher, though French and English are widely spoken
Cambodian Riel (US dollars are also widely used and accepted)
30V AC electricity. Power outlets are two-prong round sockets.
Visa & Passport Requirements
A 30-day tourist visa is required for all visitors entering Cambodia. These can be obtained on arrival for in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Preah Sihanouk but you will require a passport sized photo. The Cambodian government website also offers e-visas, so you can apply before you leave.Visitors also require a passportvalid for at least six (6) months.
Mosquito borne diseases are a risk in Cambodia. When travelling with children prevention is best so apply child-safe insect repellent (with no more 20% DEET) as recommended and ensure they are dressed in long (but lightweight) clothing at all times. There are no essential vaccinations for travellers to Cambodia but we advise visiting your family GP a minimum of six weeks before travel for up to date advice on immunisations.
Avoid tap water, raw foods and food stalls with dubious hygiene standards, and avoid tummy bugs by following our safe eating mantra of “cook it, peel it or forget it.