Thai food is termed Thai cuisine; Vietnamese food, Vietnamese cuisine yet Cambodian food is called Khmer cuisine. Why, you may ask? Put simply, Khmer (pronounced kam-ere) refers to the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia, thus giving rise to the term ‘Khmer cuisine’.
Just over a month ago, my partner and I had the pleasure of spending a week and half travelling through Cambodia from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as part of a 5 week journey through South East Asia. We had such a good time in Cambodia, and perhaps our favourite memories were of exploring the awe-inspiring temples of Siem Reap – one of those things that I was able to kick off my bucket list. I could tell you how magnificent these temples are and how Angkor Wat (arguably the most famous of the many temples) is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the world’s largest religious monument, and an engineering marvel… but the experience of being at these 9th-13th century AD temples yourself, is a whole other ball game. Of course, we didn’t escape scot-free. Our days spent wandering under the hot, unforgiving sun didn’t just leave us sweat-drenched, we also got the most horrific sandal tan lines. To this day, we’re still waiting for them to vanish fully. Ah, Cambodia – you really won’t let us forget you.
Anyhow, prior to packing our bags and hopping onto a flight, I wondered about Khmer cuisine. See, Cambodia’s neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, have cuisines which have been long popularised and made trendy by restaurants all over Melbourne. Cambodia, on the other hand, had left me utterly clueless. I knew about the insect-eating but a quick search of the internet only gave me the “must-try dishes of Cambodia” or the “top 10 dishes to eat in Cambodia”. In a world that is increasingly embracing multicultural gastronomy, I’m almost surprised that Cambodian cuisine hasn’t already made it into the crux of the international dining scene.
So what of Khmer cuisine? Here’s what you have to know.
Khmer cuisine 101
(1) Rice is big in Asia and Cambodia is no exception. The popular types of rice here are short-grain rice and glutinous rice/sticky rice. Rice noodles are also a big hit.
(2) Yes, creepy crawlies are eaten and yes, this includes deep-fried crickets and tarantulas, and snake soup…though you may have to pay a pretty penny to try snake. Locals tell us that the price of snake is so high that it’s either kept for very special occasions or adventurous tourists, much out of reach for most locals. However, if you do feel the desire to try some critters, they are commonly sold for a very reasonable price at markets selling fresh produce – if you dare. Tip/warning: the abdomen of the spider is particularly “juicy”. You’re better of not knowing why.
(3) Though Cambodia is geographically sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, its cuisine bears a closer resemblance to Thai cuisine than to the latter. Think coconut-based curries and salty stir-fries but without that super spicy Thai edge.
(4) White pepper, black pepper…green pepper? Yes, it exists and is called Kampot pepper. Though not eaten in itself, it provides a striking peppery depth to any dish it’s added to.
(5) Traditional Khmer desserts. Much like the desserts of other Asian countries, it is not uncommon to find rice, beans, sweet corn, yams and other root vegetables in Cambodian sweet dishes.
Here are a few popular Cambodian dishes that you simply must try if you ever get a chance to visit the country:
- Num Pang: The Cambodian equivalent of a Vietnamese banh mi baguette. However, don’t expect it to be as hearty and rich as the banh mi. The num pang is much humbler and simpler in its ingredients. The usual suspects include pickled vegetables and a small serving of cooked pork and several other ambiguous looking luncheon meats.
- Lort cha: A favourite among the locals that is often cooked, served and eaten by the roadside. As you order them, the cart owner tosses some pre-cooked noodles into a hot wok and tops it off with fresh bean sprouts, chives and a fried (often runny) egg. The result is a cheap, cheery and comforting plate of slippery noodles.
- Khmer Curry: Generically termed ‘Khmer Curry’, this dish is anything but boring. A delicate concoction of all the usual suspects of shallots, lemongrass, turmeric and galangal, this coconut milk-based curry with vegetables (and usually chicken) is a mild dish. It is your Cambodian basic curry that is still very aromatic despite not having a fancier name.
- Beef Lok Lak: A savoury stir fry based on soy sauce, fish sauce and oyster sauce. Often served on a bed of salad vegetables.
- Fish Amok: A fragrant, thick, coconut-based curry often served in coconut shells or in banana leaf boats. It is arguably one of the most well-known dishes of Cambodia. In light of this, here’s a recipe for fish amok as taught to us by the locals so that you too may bring a little Cambodia into your kitchen.
- 200g firm white fish like ling or barramundi, cut into chunks (substitutable by chicken or firm tofu)
- 1/2 cup coconut cream
- 1 thumb-sized piece galangal
- 1 stick of lemongrass (white parts only)
- 1 kaffir lime leaf (removing the hard stem in the middle)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot (or small red onion)
- 1 tbsp dried chilli powder (not flakes)
- 1 tsp dried turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp palm sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 tsp oil
- White pepper, to taste
- Slice the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, garlic and shallot. Pound this with a mortar and pestle or blitz in a food processor until very, very fine. It's imperative to get this as fine as possible as lemongrass can be woody if not made fine enough before cooking. If using a food processor, don't forget to scrape down the sides of the container several times in between blitzing.
- Add the chilli powder, turmeric powder and shrimp paste and continue to pound/blitz until well combined.
- Over low heat, heat the 1 tsp of oil in a medium-sized pot. Add the curry paste that you have just made into the oil and cook until fragrant. This will take a few minutes and is important to bring out all the flavours in the paste.
- Once fragrant, add in half the amount of coconut cream (1/4 cup) and the full amount of water (1/3 cup) to the paste. Stir and bring to a boil before adding in your fish. Cook for several minutes or until the fish is nearly cooked then gently stir in the rest of the coconut cream, fish sauce, sugar and salt.
- At this point, your curry should be smooth. If you would like it to remain so (or do not eat eggs), omit the egg. However, it is traditional in Cambodia to have an egg-thickened amok curry. If using, whisk the eggs separately before gently mixing it into the curry whilst being careful not to break up the pieces of fish.
- To serve, drizzle with a little bit more coconut cream and serve hot alongside rice.
- You may also stir through some spinach leaves through this curry, if you wish.