Spicy or not spicy?
Cambodian cooking is all too often overshadowed by the signature dishes of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. But don’t be fooled, Khmer cuisine has much to offer.
Local dishes boasts a fusion of strong and vibrant flavours and is much milder than its neighbours, focusing on ensuring each dish contains the perfect blend of salty, sour, sweet and bitter.
Many of the dishes you’ll encounter draw inspiration from China and India, the Chinese leaving the legacy of stir-frying and the Indians introducing dried spices such as star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and fennel.
Add local ingredients, including lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and galangal to the mix. When all are pounded together in a pestle and mortar, they create a paste called kroeung, which is commonly used in Cambodian cooking.
The Kingdom has a rich network of rivers and the ocean to the south, offering a plentiful supply of fresh fish, making it a popular addition to the plates of Khmers. Prahok, a fermented fish paste, is another condiment giving Cambodian cuisine a unique flavour.
No visit to Cambodia would be complete without tasting the traditional dish of fish amok – steamed, curried fish that is coated in kroeung and cooked in a cup made from banana leaves. Beef lok lak is another signature meal, made with diced beef garnished with a piquant lime and pepper dip.
Other popular dishes include the chicken porridge soup that is devoured for breakfast, banana flower salad and rice-based desserts.
And let’s not forget the unforgettable taste of Kampot pepper that perfectly complements freshly-boiled crab.
If all this talk of Khmer food has whet your appetite, then there are plenty of great eateries offering expertly cooked Khmer cuisine around Phnom Penh.
Phka Slaa Khmer Restaurant is a classy establishment serving traditional Cambodian fare in a clean and comfortable setting. Popular menu items include the crispy pork, fish amok, whole fish on Koh Kong sauce. Set in a beautifully restored colonial villa make sure you don’t miss their $6 set lunch which is simply fantastic value for money.
The stylish and chic Malis on Norodom Blvd is also not to be missed. Owned and managed by celebrated Cambodian chef Luu Meng, here you can dine on dishes including sand goby with ginger or beef and bamboo strips. Choose al fresco in the gardens, or inside in the air-conditioned, traditionally decorated restaurant.
Another stylish eatery is The Sugar Palm, which has a lengthy offering of delicious Cambodian food, including Cambodian chicken curry, grilled eggplant and spring rolls.
Lemongrass, on St 130, is a popular choice when it comes to high-end Khmer cooking. The chicken and banana blossom salad and pork with Kampot pepper are a must-try for those wanting to sample Cambodia’s balance between sweet and sour.
Considered one of the best Khmer restaurants in town, Kravanh, located near Independence Monument on Sothearos Blvd, dispenses artfully prepared Khmer dishes. Don’t be fooled by the venues classy looks: the dishes are actually very reasonably priced. They have a second location over in the Russian market area (St. 450) which by day is a casual and relaxed affair serving market inspired dishes, and by night transforms into a more intimate experience with candle light and soft music to relax you.
Let your hunger have a heart and dine at Romdeng. Run by NGO Friends International, who train disadvantaged young people in catering, the food is cooked by trainee chefs and served by young waiters in training. The food ranges from almost forgotten recipes from the provinces to contemporary creative cuisine that will leave you craving for more.
On the second floor of Exchange Square office block is the extremely popular Nham Central, a Khmer food court run by the well-known Hagar Catering company. Sample the likes of a $2.50 Khmer set (a soup, a main and a dessert for just $2.50), or the weekly special for $4.50.