Sandwiched by the twin food powers of Vietnam and Thailand, you’d think it would be difficult for Cambodia to carve out its own food identity. And there are certainly influences of both cuisines in Khmer food…or is it the other way around? According to Cambodians, many of the noodle dishes Thailand is known for are actually-Khmer influenced. So maybe we should be call it Pad Cambodia?
A Cambodian Noodle Dish.
Let’s not inflame additional South East Asian tensions because there’s plenty of Cambodian-specific dishes that hold their own, including amok, lok lak and more. The standard ingredients are the same as other South East Asian locations—noodles, rice, minced meats, coconut, tamarind, chilis etc. However I found that the Cambodian food made enough local variations to create it’s own cuisine. Sure you can get fish in a banana leaf with coconut milk, probably in lots of different countries, and not just Asia, but rather than laska’s more sour taste, amok retains a refreshing sweetness. Lok Lak, which is basically pepper beef with rice, is made great by the native Cambodian black pepper. When freshly ground it adds a pungent aroma and flavor to the beef and gravy combination.
Delicious Amok: Fish Curry with Coconut Milk
Food was cheap in Cambodia so I was able to eat in large portions, usually ordering a fried noodle dish and meat dish for dinner. With a couple of Angkor or Anchor beers, a meal was around 10$, which is an obscene amount for one of the poorest countries on Earth. But what can I say, I’m a fatass.
I already noted the cockroaches and beef with ants I ate during my time in Cambodia, but I only scratched the surface of weird eating available, particular in Phnom Penh. Snake vendors, cricket vendors, cockroach hawkers and more ply their trade on the shores of the Mekong. From the looks of it, they didn’t seem to be making toooo many sales, so note that if you pick up a fried snake, it may have been last week’s kill.
The Good: Very solid consistency in the Khmer food, there were few truly bad dishes. Every meal I felt satisfied, although, again, this could be related to the splurging. The French colonial influence reared its head for the first time, so I was able to get some good Western cuisine in the beach tourist outpost of Sihaounikville, including a pretty incredible breakfast made by a Parisian ex-pat with baguettes and jam. Even in the tourist traps, the food was incredibly cheap.
The Meh: The street food was underwhelming…a bunch of ducks and meats hanging from posts of questionable age and origin. Unlike Thailand, there were not a ton of street vendors, although there were some makeshift curbside restaurants where an auntie would whip up something in the wok for you like a ramen. I didn’t find any Cambodian desserts that inspired my pallet although I wasn’t adventurous.
The Ugly: Tourist focused restaurants generally took the spice and flavor out of the dishes—I had some seriously terrible lok lak my last night in Phnom Penh. I also took a bunch of buses in Cambodia and avoided eating at pretty much every stop since the food seemed old and not of the greatest hygiene. On the plus side, I’ve lost 8 pounds on this trip.
Best Dishes: Other than the aforementioned beef with ants, lok lak and amok, some fried chicken with lemongrass I ate on one of my many sojourns to the Angkor temples. The fresh lemongrass flavors and sauces made a party in my mouth.
Weirdest Dish: Clearly the cockroaches. But I also ate a dried fish and mango salad that was pretty unpleasant. I understand the flavor that’s aimed for, the saltiness of the dried fish against the sweetness of the mango, but it really didn’t do anything for me.
Overall score: A pleasant surprise, I recommend Khmer food. Only the lack of truly great dishes holds it back.