The cuisine of Cambodia is often overlooked and overshadowed by the neighbouring countries of Thailand and Vietnam. Many of the dishes have a common historical bond, but Khmer food has its own very distinct personality. Cambodian food has always been simple, relying on locally sourced foods and seasonal products. It has influences from neighbouring countries, but is generally not as refined. Cambodian food uses blends of spices and fresh herbs to produce balanced flavours but without such a chili hit as you would find in Thailand.
Popular Flavours of Cambodian Cooking
The main staples are the fresh water fish provided by the Mekong River and rice found in the wetlands that cover the country. A distinct flavour throughout the country is prahok, a salty paste made from fermented fish, or kapi made from fermented prawns, generally eaten with rice. Other influences in its cooking come from India with dishes that use cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and turmeric. Fresh herbs are used, when in season, such as fresh mint, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and coriander.
Simple but Exotic Dishes
A simple way to see what is good to eat, is to see what products are fresh and in season at the markets. Ka Tieu noodles, a soup of chicken, pork meatballs and greens in a spicy broth, similar to Vietnam pho, are sold everywhere. Amok is a traditional dish consisting of fish in coconut milk and prahok. Further south towards Phnom Penh, you´ll find the most delicious buttery, river crabs. No seasoning is required, other than a sprinkle of lime juice and fresh green peppercorns. Spring rolls are another staple, often made with shrimp, radish and cucumber served with sticky rice. The Cambodians have mastered living off the land, using anything they can to create the most beautiful dishes like chicken with shredded banana flowers, lemon and coriander or sour beef stew with lemon grass, turmeric and fermented fish paste. They are not lacking in desserts either. Melon, papaya and cucumber with a covering of palm sugar, or a sweet sticky rice can cure anyone´s sweet craving.
Picture: Elke Dennis – Fotolia