Cambodia. Known as the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’, its stunning scenery, magnificent temples, dusty streets and dense jungles have witnessed much turbulence over the years. Once one of the major regional powers of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a startling military history – from a great empire to an occupied and subjugated nation, right through to independence and the horrors sparked by the overspill of the Vietnam war, it’s a country which has seen its share of glory and tragedy.
The rise and fall of the Khmer empire is at the heart of Cambodia’s history, and the Khmer people are the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising around 90% of the county’s population – so what is Khmer cuisine? It’s the traditional cuisine of the people of Cambodia – and it’s as intriguing, varied and full of complimentary contrasts as Cambodia itself.
To understand how Cambodian cuisine evolved, it’s important to understand some of the history of the region, as well. The Khmer Empire was the predecessor to what we now know as modern Cambodia, and it was immensely powerful, ruling over Thailand, Laos and parts of southern Vietnam at various different times. Dating back to 802 CE, the Empire brought an Indian influence to Cambodia, which in turn were passed on to Thailand and Laos, spreading Hinduism (which was eventually supplanted by Buddhism) and building many of the beautiful temples which still stand in the area. Though the Khmer Empire was in decline by the 14th century, their influence still lingers in Khmer cuisine, with curries (known as kari in Khmer) an important part of Cambodian cooking.
A French culinary influence is also prominent in Khmer cuisine, due to French colonization of Cambodia which lasted from 1863 until 9th November 1953, when Cambodia became independent. This can be seen in the popularity of num pang pate (crusty baguettes with pate and pickled vegetables), and a national love of coffee, which Cambodia shares with Vietnam, which was also formerly part of French Indochina. Chinese influences are also apparent through rice noodle dishes such as kuy teav, a pork-broth-based rice noodle soup, and bobor, a rice porridge which is similar to Chinese congee, and is traditionally served for breakfast.
Khmer cuisine is often misunderstood by Westerners, who often visit Cambodia after Vietnam or Thailand and, observing some of the similarities between the three cuisines, expect Khmer cuisine to work in the same way as, say, Thai. For travellers completely uninitiated in regional Indochinese cuisine, arriving fresh off the plane to Cambodia, the misunderstanding may be even more intense – if your sole experience of South East Asian cuisine is eating at Vietnamese restaurants in Milton Keynes – delicious as they might be – you may find the reality of a full spread of Khmer cuisine a little overwhelming.
You see, like Vietnamese and Thai food, Khmer cuisine aims to provide the perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour – but unlike the aforementioned cuisines, it does not attempt to achieve this balance per dish. Rather, a Khmer meal involves a wide range of small dishes and sauces, one of which may be hot, one salty, one sweet, etc – and it is up to the diner to achieve his or her perfect balance of flavours. Understanding this is key to having a delicious Khmer meal – if you expect to eat each dish one after the other, rather than mixing the flavours, you may be disappointed.
Another mistake commonly made by travelers is assuming that street food is the best place to try “authentic” Cambodian cuisine. If you’re eating Khmer cuisine in Cambodia, it is by definition authentic, and while Cambodian street food can be incredible and is certainly a good place to grab a tasty snack, if you want to sample the best Cambodia has to offer, it’s worth going to a proper restaurant. Cambodia is, after all, a very poor country, so if you don’t have the local expertise to know the best street food stalls to visit, your samples may be disappointing. The best Cambodian street food is cooked in front of you and served piping hot – and the very best Khmer cuisine can be found in restaurants, where it is still extremely cheap to eat.
The first thing you’ll notice in Cambodia is the prevalence of rice – in fact, rice is so embedded in Khmer culture that Cambodians actually greet each other with “Nham bay howie nov?” – the literal translation of which is “Have you eaten rice yet?”. Every meal comes with a large serving of rice, and sticky rice is commonly eaten as a dessert. This is great for gluten-free diners, though vegetarians may have a trickier time with Cambodian cuisine – much of the menu is concerned with getting as much flavour from meats and fish as possible. A good Khmer dish for vegetarians is samlor karko sap, typically made with pumpkin, green papaya, jackfruit, green banana and snake beans – but overall, vegetarians might struggle with the Khmer diet.
A few must-try dishes for the rest of us, though, are fish amok – this curry is often called Cambodia’s national dish, and seafood in the region is generally excellent, as Cambodia has an abundance of wetlands. Bai sach chrouk (barbequed pork and rice with garlic, soy and coconut milk) is a popular breakfast dish that is sure to appeal to Western taste buds, and lort cha is a delicious dish of short, fat rice noodles, greens, soy sauce and fish sauce. Sour fruit sprinkled with chili, salt and sugar makes a tasty snack – and if you’re eager to try a Khmer delicacy, there’s always deep-fried tarantulas!
With the increased availability of South East Asian ingredients, herbs and vegetable in the UK, it is actually totally possible for you to create Khmer cuisine in the comfort of your own kitchen. Various Cambodian or Khmer cuisine cook books are available, although much less than for Thai or Vietnamese food. The best and most beautiful in our opinion is “Ambarella: Cambodian Cuisine” by mother and daughter duo Sorey Long and Kanika Linden. As well as showcasing over 100 authentic Cambodian and Khmer recipes, this book tells the story of a family and a country with a text that goes straight to the heart. With beautiful pictures, the only problem with the book is that you will soon feel very hungry and craving for Cambodian food!
So don’t turn your nose up at Khmer cuisine, or dismiss it as an inferior version of the food served at your favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Milton Keynes, or local Thai curry house. Once you understand the importance of mixing different dishes to achieve the perfect balance of flavours, you’ll find that Khmer cuisine offers its own world of flavours, from veggie-rich stir-fries to rich, fermented fish-paste. And if you want to sample authentic Khmer cuisine here at home before booking your trip to Cambodia, take a trip to your local Banana Tree. We offer a variety of dishes from across Indochina, not just Cambodia – so by ordering dishes from several South East Asian countries, you can compare the different flavours and textures.