Cambodia is home to some of the oldest archaics of the Khmer Empire. The temples here are filled to the brim with history and culture. But perhaps the best treasure we found was Cambodian food! The food here has evolved under the Khmer Empire and has flavors we had not tasted before.
What Cambodia is known for goes beyond UNESCO World Heritage sites and floating villages. The food here is unique and worth exploring. You’ll be amazed to see the different methods locals use to make their everyday dishes.
What’s Special About The Food In Khmer
Traditional Cambodian foods are different from other Southeast Asian cuisines in terms of flavor, appearance, and fragrance. The first thing we noticed about Cambodian dishes was their intense aroma.
Locals here heavily use aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime to attract hungry people from miles away! Another key feature of the food in Cambodian culture is their use of fish. Seafood is the main source of protein here, thanks to the country’s geographical location.
Cambodian street food also has a wide variety of vibrant dishes that represent the country’s rich street food culture, which is often bustling with activity.
But what makes Khmer street food distinct is its use of pickled veggies and tropical fruits. You’ll find some amazing local pickles apart from the mundane pickled carrots and cucumbers.
We found some cool ones like Rambutan and Dragon Fruit, and how the locals incorporated these into their food made it worth trying!
Most Famous Traditional Cambodian Food
Amok (Steamed Fish Curry)
Amok is the star of Cambodian cuisine as it brilliantly highlights every savory flavor you’ll experience in the country. Steamed fish is the hero of this curry, which itself is a flavor punch of umami.
The way we saw the locals make it made us even more eager to eat it! They place the fish and curry mix in little banana leaf baskets over the steamer. As it was cooking, we could tell just from the smell that the dish would have that hearty, earthy taste from the leaves.
We found out that this dish is given great importance at festivals. This was a way for locals to thank the Mekong River for providing the origin with fertile land and abundant fish.
Amok tends to be immensely fragrant thanks to the heavy use of lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, chili, garlic, and shallots. Eating it with a side of bread is a great way to enjoy the curry, particularly if you don’t have a high spice tolerance. For us, it’s just perfect for soaking in the rich gravy!
Many locals also prefer to eat fish curry alongside jasmine rice as it elevates the overall flavor. And it’s also more filling with that bowl of carbohydrates to refuel their energy. Labor-intensive work still forms a significant part of the job market.
Traditional Breakfast Items In Cambodian Food
Num Pang (Cambodian Baguette)
Num Pang is among our favorite sandwiches in the country. It features a fresh, airy baguette with any filling you can think of! The traditional Num Pang we had consisted of pickled vegetables, pork, and pate.
But what we loved was that this variation can change depending on your order, and that’s what’s special about the food in Phnom Penh: it never gets boring! We also saw some locals adding turkey, chicken, and eggs to the sandwich.
If you look closer, you’ll realize that the Num Pang is a by-product of French colonization, as the baguette is a traditional French bread that has now become a Cambodian breakfast.
Kuy Teav (Noodle Soup)
Kuy Teav was the breakfast dish we saw everyone having in Cambodia. It features rice noodles in a soup that showcases the flavor of pork, shrimp, and vegetables.
After talking with the vendor, we discovered that this famous Cambodian food is only sold before midday and can be harder to find after that. Business must be good with the morning crowd.
Fermented ingredients like soy sauce, fish sauce, and rice wine are non-negotiable when it comes to preparing this dish. Kuy Teav changed our views regarding rice wine. Who knew it could be this delicious?
Num Banh Chok (Khmer Noodles)
Num Banh Chok is the national dish of Cambodia, consisting of freshly made rice noodles dipped into fish curry. Having tried different curry dishes across Asia, we realized that this was definitely not your average fish curry.
The curry is made with coconut milk, prahok, seasonal vegetables, and, of course, fish. What made it unique was the strong aroma and creamier taste. The dish was served with herbs and lemongrass, which we then sprinkled on top of the curry.
The vendors also top it off with some edible flowers to make the dish as pretty as it is delicious!
Twa Ko (Khmer Lemongrass Sausages)
Twa Ko is a popular street food in Cambodia made from a blend of minced pork and aromatic lemongrass
One of the distinctive features of Twa Ko is its method of cooking. The sausages are traditionally grilled over an open flame, giving them a smoky flavor and a slightly charred exterior. This grilling process enhances the overall taste.
The sausages are often served with a side of fresh herbs and a dipping sauce, adding an extra layer of flavor. The dipping sauce we had was a balance of sweet, spicy, and tangy elements.
Borbor (Rice Porridge)
Borbor is a flavorful rice porridge cooked in chicken and vegetable stock. Cooking the porridge in these stocks gives it an intense umami flavor that complimented the texture of the dish.
We found out from a local that this Khmer food makes up for the perfect local hangover cure, driving away the headache and grogginess. It’s easy to see (and taste, obviously) why; the warm porridge is both comforting and fulfilling as an early morning perk-me-up.
You can also notice a difference in taste due to the different types of stocks used. The use of vegetables like onions and carrots made the dish slightly sweet and gave it a hint of earthy flavor.
Tum Krueng (Khmer Herb Salad)
The Khmer herb salad is a bold creation that packs a refreshing punch. It contains a vast array of fresh vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, daikon, and other leafy greens. But what made it unique was the use of unripe mangos and papayas.
These fruits imparted a tangy flavor to the salad that went hand in hand with the spice from the chili flakes. The salad was dressed with Khmer seasonings, including palm sugar, lime juice, and prahok, giving the salad a distinct taste.
Traditional Meat Dishes In Cambodian Food
Kangkep Baob (Stuffed Frogs)
Kangkep Baob showcases the creativity and resourcefulness of Cambodian cuisine. These frogs are cleaned, marinated, and then stuffed with a flavorful mixture. The stuffing typically consists of a blend of ground pork, lemongrass, garlic, and various aromatic herbs and spices, creating a delicious and fragrant filling.
If you are still wondering – no, you did not read wrong. Frogs it is! In fact, frogs are regularly enjoyed in many parts of Asia as a delicacy. Fried, stewed, cooked in rich gravy, you name it.
We can tell you that it’s not for everyone, but it’s an essential part of experiencing the diverse and authentic flavors of Cambodia.
Lok Lak (Stir-fried Beef)
Lok Lak is a popular stir-fry, highlighting the use of pepper and lime in the local cuisine in Cambodia. The crispy beef marinated with several local spices makes it the star of this mouthwatering dish.
Adding black pepper and a tangy lime sauce gives it the signature flavor locals can’t get enough of. The server presented the juicy fried beef over a crunchy piece of lettuce, topped with tomatoes, but you can also have it with steamed rice and a vast array of dipping sauces.
Saraman (Khmer Beef Curry)
Saraman is the Khmer food variant of the famous Beef Rendang and Thai Massaman curry. Contrary to these foods, Saraman is not made with shrimp paste. It gets the tones of umami from local spices like cardamom, dried red chili, lemongrass stalks, shallots, and the list goes on.
We had ours with a side of fresh, pillowy rice. Eating it with aromatic rice balanced out the flavors and made the dish more substantial. It’s definitely one of the go-to foods if you are a meat lover seeking a hearty meal.
Bai Sach Chrouk (Grilled Pork)
Bai Sach Chrouk is a famous Cambodian food locals love to serve on special occasions. Just like other Cambodian meat dishes, it comes with a generous portion of rice.
Locals tend to eat this during the breakfast hours, but we also saw plenty of people having it for lunch and dinner. Just one more excuse for us to keep stuffing our faces with it.
The sides that accompany Bai Sach Chrouk include pickled vegetables, different forms of bread, and dipping sauces. Although most of the dipping sauces are mild, try the spicy red one with caution as it was more potent than it looked!
Sngor Chrouk Trey (Khmer Fish Fish)
One of the best soups we had in Cambodia. Sngor Chrouk Trey features fish served in a tasty broth enriched with the taste of lemon grass, herbs, and authentic Khmer rice. Local seasoning includes green onion, chili pepper, and mixed herbs.
It had a nice balance of flavors without an overpowering taste. And fish preparation is always messy so it’s a worthy dish to order outside. The rice made it rather filling, although we saw some locals dipping different pieces of bread in their soup, so that’s also worth a try.
Sach Moan Ang (Red Curry Chicken)
Khmer street food is incomplete without the aromatic flavor of Sach Moan Ang. The chicken fillets in the curry are tender and easily break apart. The chicken and the spicy, flavorful curry went well with bread.
One interesting item the vendor used to prepare this dish was sugar. It was used to caramelize the chicken, and it imparted a slight sweet flavor that made the dish even better.
Vegetables like garlic, onions, and capsicum combined with aromatics like fresh basil and kaffir lime leaves made this curry hearty and soothing.
Traditional Vegan/ Vegetarian Food In Cambodian Food
Kari Sach Chrouk (Grilled Eggplant Curry)
Grilled eggplant curry was nothing like we expected with its funky and smoky taste. The cook grilled the eggplant right in front of us filling the air with an aromatic air.
The curry itself had a rich taste of pork mince, fermented soybeans, spring onion, pepper, and salt. Locals also added tamarind and yogurt to the base of this curry which made it slightly sour in a good way.
Eggplants really don’t get as much love as they deserve. But this eggplant curry is certainly worth a try even if you are not a big fan of the base ingredient.
Pleah Chrouk (Pomelo Salad)
Among all the Cambodian foods we tried, Pleah Chrouk had the quickest preparation time. The vendor simply tossed together a large pomelo, protein of choice, peanuts, coconut, and mint leaves for the salad. The salad was dressed with delicious sauce which emitted rich flavors of garlic, bird-eye chii, and yummy fish sauce.
You can pick your ingredients for the salad. We loved the nutty flavor of chopped peanuts and cashews; always a great choice. For a hint of spice, we topped our salad with red chilies which is a tad bit adventurous option.
Samlar Kakou (Pumpkin Soup)
Samlar Kakou features the subtle sweetness of pumpkin, both comforting and warming at the same time. The soup also had this zesty and refreshing element to it thanks to the use of tamarind.
The vendor said that this Cambodian food was widely eaten during times of scarcity. The locals also loved having this soup in the winter season, as the soup’s velvety texture feels nothing less than a warm embrace.
Tofu With Kampot Pepper
At the heart of this Cambodian cuisine was black pepper itself. The tofu had the perfect golden brown hue, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Both the sauce and tofu complemented each other, resulting in a satisfying texture.
The dish was accompanied by fresh vegetables which brought color to our plate. The distinct flavors of shallot, ginger, and sugar broke down in the perfect manner. We love that extra spicy kick so we topped our tofu dish with a bunch of crushed peppers.
Amok Chouk (Stir-Fried Tofu)
Amok Chouk is like the vegetarian variation of Amok. This right here is the reason why we love the food in Cambodia. It comes with no restrictions and you can freestyle the way you like.
Our vendor prepared this culinary dish with the help of firm and creamy tofu, chili peppers, onions, and spinach. The lemongrass paste over the final dish took the aromatic game to the next level.
Many locals were having this creamy dish with rice, but we preferred having it on its own. Got to watch those carbs and calories, especially if we’re eating our way through the day.
Num Chet Chien (Fried Banana Dessert)
Num Chet Chien are fried banana nuggets with a golden brown exterior and creamy interior. When walking through Khmer street food, the scent of bananas being fried led us to a vendor who was preparing this delicacy.
The fried bananas are typically served with a drizzle of sweet palm syrup or honey, adding a rich and indulgent sweetness to the dish. This dessert perfectly balances the natural sweetness of the bananas with the crispy, slightly savory coating, resulting in a mouthwatering taste contrast.
It wasn’t overly sugary and had a slightly salty taste to it. We tried it with ice cream, and it tasted even better, adding a hot and cold contrast.
Traditional Cakes In Cambodian Food
Num Ansom Chrouk (Savory Cake With Pork)
The sticky rice cake came with a mildly sweet taste and a soft texture from the inside. Be prepared to experience a strong and rich taste of marinated pork. The vendor cooked this dish in banana leaf wrapping which we think was the reason for the earthy aroma.
This Cambodian food was available almost in every stall and is widely sold at festivals. The kids especially love this snack, eating these rice cakes after a tiring day at school.
Num Kov Pi (Layered Coconut Cake)
Num Kov Pi combines the rich, tropical flavors of coconut and palm sugar. The preparation involves creating multiple layers of this batter and steaming them to perfection. The layers are stacked with a sweet creamy filling under each layer.
Cambodians often enjoy Num Kov Pi as a dessert or snack, and it’s commonly found at local markets and gatherings.
This dessert not only exemplifies the use of traditional ingredients like coconut and palm sugar but also highlights the skilled craftsmanship of Cambodian cooks in creating a visually appealing and delicious treat.
Cha Houy Teuk (Sweet Jelly)
Cha Houy Teuk is a popular Cambodian desert with vibrant colors and smooth texture. It is a multilayered colorful jelly made from gelatinous agar flavored with coconut milk, rose water, pandan leaf extract, and various fruit essences.
It is usually served chilled which really adds to the taste. You can have it either plain or with a top layer of sweet sugar syrup making it sweeter and more refreshing in Cambodia’s warm climate.
Nom Akor (Steamed Rice Cake)
If you’re looking for gluten-free options, Twa Ko is the ultimate lifesaver. The vendor who sold us these rice cakes told us that these are a Cambodian must-have for festivals and celebrations.
The cakes were light and fluffy, with differing flavors of nuts like almonds and roasted peanuts. We had this with the morning tea, as did the locals, but you can also have it as a side to your main dish at lunch or dinner.
Num Ta Piak (Steamed Tapioca Cake)
Num Ta Piak’s velvety texture is apparent on the first bite. This steamed tapioca cake showcases a combination of sweet coconut and rice flavors and does an amazing job of satisfying our sweet tooth.
A recipe passed down from one generation to another, Num Ta Piak is a staple dessert we saw at several events and celebrations.
This traditional Cambodian food had a gentle sweetness to it and each bite became more pleasurable than the first one. The use of coconut milk added an extra layer of richness to this dessert.
Desserts In Traditional Cambodian Food
Samlor M’Choun (Fruit Soup Dessert)
Symbolizing good fortune, Samlor M’Choun is a popular Cambodian fruit soup. What? Fruit soup?
Yes, it’s a perfect mixture of a variety of topical fruits including lychee and jackfruit in sweet syrup consisting of creamy coconut milk and palm sugar flavored with pandan leaves. Ok, it’s more like a cocktail that takes advantage of the rich tropical fruits in the region, but also with more liquid.
In fact, what makes this dessert special is the “broth” – a mixture of coconut milk, sugar, and a hint of pandan leaf extract, giving it a fragrant and exotic quality. If you are not from around the region, you might just get to try some new fruits for the first time here with this dish!
Nom Kong (Cambodian Donuts)
Nom Kong are Cambodian donuts, crispy on the outside and perfectly chewy on the inside. These donuts are said to have a mochi-like texture which can be attributed to the use of rice flour. Vendors often shape these donuts into small balls, making them easy to snack on.
The donuts are moderately sweet and the coconut adds an exotic flavor to this Cambodian food. We felt these to be a little less sweet and asked the vendor to drizzle on some syrup. The syrup was fruity and it really made these donuts more delectable.
Num Kralan (Bamboo Sticky Rice)
We found this Cambodian snack being sold on the food streets of Khmer and it consists of sticky rice, bamboo leaves, coconut milk, and black beans. Num Kralan symbolizes ancient offerings made to ancestors.
This is the reason why bamboo sticky rice is so widely made during festivals including Pchum Ben. Num Kralan without a doubt is unique in its taste, with the perfect blend of sweet, coupled with the richness brought by the use of black beans.
Sankhya Lapov (Pumpkin Custard)
A symbol of good fortune in Cambodian food culture, Sankhya Lapov is a traditional dish in Cambodia. The texture of the food was smooth, thick, and creamy just like a custard cake made with coconut milk and sweet pumpkin.
The vendor told us this pumpkin custard is supposed to be baked and served after 8 hours of chilling. The subtle sweetness of the custard complements the natural sweetness of the pumpkin, making it a harmonious and satisfying dessert.
It is garnished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds before serving for added texture and flavor.
Babaw Sadeik Khiew (Cambodian Mung Bean Pudding)
Babaw Sadeik Khiew is a sweet and satisfying dessert deeply rooted in Cambodian culinary tradition as it is made from mung beans. They are soaked, ground, and cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar.
The resulting pudding has a velvety texture and a naturally sweet, nutty flavor from the mung beans. The toasted sesame seeds that come on top make the dish even more appealing. We also got ourselves a drizzle of coconut cream for added richness.
Coconut cream is just the bomb for adding an extra creamy kick to anything. However, the flavor can be overpowering, so be careful if you are just topping it off on other dishes. Don’t add too much in one go.
Nom Lort (Cambodian Pandan Coconut Dessert)
Nom Lort is the perfect combination of pandan extract and coconut. This pleasing dessert is made with the help of monk bean starch, sugar, water, pandan extract, the coloring of your choice, and iced water.
Pandan-flavored rice flour dumplings served in creamy coconut milk make for a popular dessert in Cambodian local cuisine.
Discovering Traditional Food In Khmer
Khmer cuisine is diverse, and it has multiple options for all sorts of preferences! Whether you want a rich fish curry that tantalizes your taste buds or you’re looking for a soothing Cambodian dessert, you just can’t have enough.
Spending time with the locals on festivals and other occasions will give you experiences that make trips memorable. We’ve realized that there’s no better way to actually relate to the locals and blend in with them is to share their food!
Trying Cambodian food will allow you not just to appreciate the Khmer cuisine but also to feel what it felt like to be alive when the Khmer Empire reigned supreme!