A Crash Course in Khmer Cuisine

Stalls inside Phnom Penh’s Kandal Market

When asking around about what defines Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine, the most common response I would receive is “It’s pretty much the same as Thai food, just not as spicy.”  Whereas I understand that the two countries share many of the same ingredients, have a history that has been intertwined for the last 1,000 years, and are side-by-side geographically, this explanation still always struck me as a bit unfortunate.  The situation isn’t necessarily that Cambodian people aren’t proud of their culinary heritage (they are), but more that it has probably become easier to simply describe it in context of another more-well-know cuisine than to walk a traveler through the development of the culture.

Speaking of which, if you look back through history, you’d realize that it is actually Thai food that is similar to Khmer food, not the other way around.  If you remember back to my post on the History of Siam, the country that we now know of as Thailand didn’t come into its own until the 13th century, being previously ruled by the Khmer Empire that was based in Angkor.  Thus the basis of Thai cuisine is actually rooted in that of the Khmer cuisine.  As further evidence of this, the fact that Khmer cuisine isn’t nearly as spicy as that of Thai cuisine is as a direct result of the fact that the Khmer Empire ruled before the Portuguese introduced the chili pepper to the region in the 16th century, when the Khmer cuisine was already largely developed.  Before diving into the notable dishes, however, we’ll start where we always start: the markets!  (Note: although I started my Thai Cuisine post with a trip to the markets as well, I’ll do my best not to show the same ingredients):

The watchful eye of a local butcher

Bitter Melon

Fresh Fruit nearby the Central Market in Phnom Penh

Ants, which are something of a delicacy for the Khmer people (I did try the ants, but I still couldn’t work up enough courage to try the other famous “weird eats” of Cambodia: deep-fried tarantulas

Fresh Squid

Scaling and Filleting fish for you on the spot

Clams

A plethora of pre-made take-out dishes are also available at the markets

The most famous dish of Cambodia is easily that of Amok, a steamed concoction of local fish and the ubiquitous herb paste known as kroeung that is essential to Khmer cooking.  Though many up-scale restaurants “fancy up” the dish to the point at which it is the texture of an ethereal mouse, it is most commonly served in a form more similar to that of a curry (both with rice as an accompaniment).

Amok, this version uses a local river fish native to the Siem Reap area

Lok Lak Beef: sliced beef served in a sweet and tangy sauce and topped with a fried egg (mmmmmm….cholesterol…)

Seafood and Peppercorn Curry, a dish native to the Kampot region (where the peppercorns reign supreme)

Fish cooked with Palm Sugar

Fried Banana Blossom Salad

Khmer Curry with Vegetables

Fried Fish Cakes covered in a Bean Paste Sauce (at a bit fancier of a restaurant, obviously)

Khmer Dumplings, glutinous little balls stuffed with spinach (in this case)

The aptly named “Cambodia Beer.” The other two major brands of brew here are, confusingly enough, Angkor and Anchor

A dessert of Khmer cakes to finish things off

Along with the dishes featured above — and in line with what I’ve found across the rest of Southeast Asia so far — there is an overwhelming abundance of noodle soups in Cambodia, too.  The most famous is Nom Bahn Chok, a breakfast dish consisting of  fermented rice noodles topped with a green fish curry, but there are more variations than you can imagine.  Though I definitely didn’t catch the name of them all, here are a few of the variants I was able to sample:

I think you get the point by now, so I’ll forego any additional shots

Though it didn’t contain any noodles, this Sour Duck Soup with Lime Pickles was a personal favorite

Eating the traditional curry dishes and noodles soups will certainly give you a good glimpse into what constitutes Khmer cuisine, but to really get to the heart of the matter, you’ve got to get down on the street (surprise, surprise).  Although vendors troll the streets everywhere I visited, the best place to indulge one’s street food fetish is in Phnom Penh itself.  Here are a few of the culinary creations that you’ll likely encounter:

Num Pang – a French baguette stuffed with pate, pork bologna, cucumber, pickled papaya, pickled carrots, and a spicy red sauce (not too dissimilar to the Banh Mi that I’ll surely encounter in Vietnam)

Mi Char – a simple fried noodle dish (there are usually option on what type of noodle you’d like) that is topped with a fried egg and served up for about 75 cents a serving.  And yes, before you ask, immediately after taking this picture, I realized that I was spilling most of the sauce from the container down the side of my arm…awesome.

A bag of Cherry Eggplants served with a mildly spicy sauce

Sausages of unknown (but tasty) provenance

Spring Rolls frying away

Ngeav Chamhoy — trays of cockles, usually steamed with chilies, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal (by the way, you’ll see the discarded remains of these little guys littering the streets all over the city)

I didn’t catch the name of this one, but it was unique in its own right. Fried strips of dough were cut into cross-sections, thrown into a cup, and then drowned in a sticky-sweet sauce and topped with sweetened condensed milk.

And finally, I’d feel bad if I asked you to wade through an entire food post without offering up at least one recipe for you to try at home.  In this case, I’ll stick with the national dish of Amok:

AMOK: serves 1-2 people

(recipe courtesy of Cambodia Cooking Class)

There are essentially three different procedures involved in the creation of this dish: making the kroeung (or curry paste), creating the banana leaf cup in which the dish is steamed, and then the final assembly and steaming of the curry itself.  And in a similar fashion to the previous recipes I’ve posted, this is a simplified version meant to making preparation at home a bit easier — for example, the kroeung will usually contain kapi (shrimp paste) and prahok (fish paste), but these have been omitted here as they aren’t readily available outside of Southeast Asia :

Kroeung:

  • 5 dried red chilies (soaked, drained, and chopped into a paste)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsp galangal, sliced thin
  • 1 tsp lemongrass, sliced thin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • zest of 1/4 kaffir lime

Combine all of ingredients in a blender (or mortal and pestle, if you’d like to do it the old-fashioned way) until it forms a thick paste — which will take a lot longer than you think it will, but it is important to make sure there are absolutely no chunks left.  You can refrigerate any leftover paste for about a week — it makes a nice addition to any other soups or stir-frys that you may happen to be making later that week.

Banana Leaf Cup:

Cut two circles out of cleaned banana leaves of approximately 25cm in diameter and place them one on top of the other (with the grain of the leaves going in perpendicular directions).  Begin by creating “pleats” in the leaves by reaching down about 1/3 of the way from the outside of the circles and tucking them back over the rest of the leaves, securing them with half-toothpicks — it should take 4-6 pleats to form a small cup.  This is a tough one to explain in words, but the picture below will hopefully help:

Finishing the Amok:

  • 30 grams young nhor leaves (leave these out if you can’t find them)
  • 3 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 Tbsp kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
  • 3 small red chili peppers (2 serranos or 1 jalapeno would work as substitutes)
  • 500 grams fish (any meaty fish will work), sliced thinly
  • 3/4 cup coconut cream
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • steamed rice

Stir the kroeung curry paste (from above) into 1 cup of the coconut milk.  When this has completely dissolved, add the egg, fish sauce, sliced fish, and the remaining coconut milk and mix well.  Fill the banana leaf cups you made earlier with the coconut milk, fish, and curry paste mixture and place in a steamer basket or bamboo steamer.  Steam the entire mixture for 15-20 minutes until the mixture is solid but still moist.  Finish by adding a dollop of the coconut cream, garnishing with the sliced kaffir lime leaves and chili peppers, and serving alongside steamed rice.

(note – if you aren’t able to make the banana leaf cups, variations exist in which the Amok is steamed in coconut shells, hollowed-out pumpkins, and even taro. A small bowl or ramekin will also work — just be sure to add 5-10 minutes to the steaming time to compensate for the added thickness)

The coconut milk and kroeung mixture, with the fish freshly added

The whole mixture poured into the banana leaf cup and ready to be steamed

The finished dish — which is then served up over steamed rice

Best of luck with the Amok recipe, and be sure to let me know how it turns out if you give it a go.  Until next time!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

10 Responses to “A Crash Course in Khmer Cuisine”

  1. My favorite was Lok Lak (but I didn’t try as many local foods as you did). Andrew, judging from your latest posts I guess you have a penchant toward ancient ruins and foods. Southeast Asia is indeed a perfect place to experience both!

    • There are other places in the world where you see ancient ruins and plently of places where you can eat well, but very few that combine the two as plentifully as here in Southeast Asia. I’m going to be sad to leave when the time comes!

  2. Man,
    I am so jazzed for our Cambodia trip in January!

  3. That first photograph was so colorfully dynamic that I wanted to paint it. The level of difficulty for watercolors is staggering, however.

    • I’ve only attempted to paint watercolors a few times, and never was quite able to master it. If you give it a try, best of luck, and I’d love to see the finished result!

  4. It all looks soooo good especially the Nom Bahn Chok, which looks similar to what they have for breakfast in Vietnam and around Ho Chi Min the Mekong Delta especially. Such a nice and interesting part of the world, great food, people, culture and history. The human race is beautiful in its diversity…!

    • You’re exactly right about the diversity of humans across the world (even within one region, such as Southeast Asia here). Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to those breakfasts in Vietnam!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “One Please!” (Take Two) – Bowls of Pho, Glasses of Bai Hoi, and Other Street Eats in Hanoi | Temporarily Lost - April 20, 2012

    […] in Singapore, and touched briefly on those edibles which can be acquired on the sidewalk in Phnom Penh, but now it’s time to turn to another great street food destination: Hanoi, Vietnam. Tables […]

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