When was the last time you picked up Cambodian food for dinner on your way home? Never, you say? Me neither. Cambodian food has never been on my radar screen. Sometimes I crave Thai takeout or a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho. But I haven’t ever hankered for the cuisine of Cambodia, that nation squeezed between Thailand and Vietnam, the culinary giants of Southeast Asia.
It’s ironic, really, that the food of Cambodia isn’t more widely known or appreciated. Cambodian food is the contemporary expression of the cuisine of the mighty Khmer empire, which flourished there until the mid-15th century. Cambodia’s ancient Khmer cuisine influenced the culinary traditions of Thailand and Vietnam, not the other way around.
A Tie to the Past
If you walk or ride down any village road in Cambodia, you’ll notice smoking coal or wood fires. And you’ll smell the delicious aroma of grilled meat. Cambodians certainly enjoy their barbecue.
I sampled pork cubes grilled on wooden skewers for breakfast, and fragrant, fire-roasted beef for dinner. Any meat is fair game for a Cambodian grill, even the plentiful, snack-sized frogs which are popular with tuk-tuk drivers around Siem Reap.
People in Cambodia have been barbecuing the same way for almost a thousand years. At the mesmerizing Bayon temple near modern day Siem Reap, the daily life of 12th century Khmer people is chronicled in detailed bas relief panels. Some of the best stone carvings show villagers grilling meat squeezed between long wooden sticks, just like they still do today.
A Respect for Craft
The Bayon temple carvings also confirm that fish and rice have been key elements of the Cambodian diet for many centuries. Cottage industries based on these dietary staples survive today in Cambodia’s developing economy, supporting artisanal producers and promoting traditional, regional recipes.
For example, Cambodians still preserve fish by fermentation. In Battambang, locals produce prahok, a fermented fish paste that provides the strongest and most distinctive flavor in Cambodian cuisine. At a small prahok factory, fresh fish are cleaned, crushed, dried, salted and fermented in barrels or large clay jars.
After fermenting for as little as 3 weeks or up to 3 years, the pungent prahok can be mixed with rice as a source of protein in a basic, home-cooked Cambodian meal. The paste is also used as a salty seasoning to give dishes a typically Cambodian bitter and sour flavor.
Most other examples of artisanal food production in Cambodia are based on rice, the country’s primary agricultural commodity. By steaming a mixture of rice flour and water, two women in Battambang can produce up to 2,000 rice paper wrappers in their palm-thatched workshop each day, drying each wrapper in the afternoon sun.
In and around Battambang, locals sell rice treats known as “kralan” all along the roadside. They mix sweet rice with coconut milk and black beans, then stuff the mixture into short bamboo tubes. After roasting the tubes over hot coals, they slice off the blackened, outer layer while the bamboo is still hot.
Battambang local Sokin Nou showed me how to break the warm tube with my hands and peel back the bamboo to reach the sticky rice treat inside.
My favorite rice treat, however, was the fresh, fermented rice noodles served everywhere from restaurants to roadside stands. In the village of Preah Dak outside Siem Reap, a family still produces fermented rice noodles by hand in a well-orchestrated, outdoor operation. To pound the fermented rice into a pasty dough, three people power a giant, wooden mallet with their feet while another carefully kneads the dough beneath the moving mallet in a stone basin.
Another member of the family then fills an extruder with dough and sits atop a giant wooden lever, using his weight to squeeze thin noodles directly into a pot of simmering water.
The fermented noodles are commonly served at room temperature with a deliciously mild, green fish curry in a breakfast dish called nom bahn chok.
A Living History
Modern Cambodians preserve traditional, artisanal methods of food production in their own homes and in small workshops and factories. But Cambodian culinary traditions are most dynamically displayed in local markets (away from the stalls selling elephant-print pants and Angkor Wat snow globes) and in restaurants (on the opposite side of the menu from spaghetti Bolognese and nachos.)
A Cambodian food market is not suitable for the shopper who gets woozy at the sight of butchered meat or from the smell of fish. It’s nothing like a quaint European marché, or even a grittier South American mercado. A Cambodian food market is a keen blitz on the senses.
I walked through noisy, crowded markets in Battambang and Siem Reap with local chefs, tripping over plastic colanders filled with still twitching skinned frogs, waving off flies hovering above stacks of raw chicken, and stepping carefully beside bowls of crispy insects and plastic bags pulsing with live eels and snakes.
I sought out redolent lemon-grass and kaffir limes among baskets full of leafy and fragrant produce.
I marveled at the spectrum of ripening bananas, colorful dragon fruit and regional green-skinned oranges.
And I sampled sweet-looking treats, discovering the surprising sourness that both young and old Cambodians love.
The Cambodian markets were the liveliest possible expression of the “farm to table” practices that we now treasure in our own home countries.
In Battambang, the chefs at boutique hotel Maisons Wat Kor give hands-on lessons using fresh market fare to prepare Cambodia’s national dish, fish amok. A key ingredient of this steamed fish curry is a fragrant kroeung paste made from pounding a blend of spices including galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime zest, lemongrass, shallots and garlic in a stone mortar.
In Siem Reap, the chefs at upscale Malis Restaurant offer demonstrations preparing their traditional Cambodian recipe for Saraman Beef, a rich and thick dish which combines palm sugar, coconut milk and peanuts with a distinctive curry paste. The curry paste includes fresh market ingredients such as roasted coconut, coriander, cinnamon, kaffir lime zest, lemongrass, galangal and garlic.
If You Go
Veteran food and travel writer Lara Dunston and her husband, fellow writer and photographer Terence Carter, share the flavors of the country that they call home in their Grantourismo Cambodian Creative Retreats and Culinary Tours.
A version of this post was previously published on December 27, 2016 in The Culinary Travel Guide as “Highlights of a Cambodian Culinary Retreat.”