Cambodian food is deeply rooted in its unique blend of influences from Chinese, Indian, and French cultures, a blend that gives it a distinct character. Cambodian food boasts rich and layered flavors which are defined by fresh ingredients, aromatic herbs, and spices.
Cambodian dishes can be broadly categorized into the following seven groups.
- Street food
Each of the seven categories of Cambodian food features a wide array of dishes, all of which deserve a spot in the repertoire of any adventurous home cook. The most popular of these Cambodian dishes include the famous fish amok, salmor korko soup, Khmer noodles, and the kuy teav soup.
Cambodian food occupies a distinct place in the gastronomic traditions of Southeast Asia, even though its popularity is eclipsed by the better-known Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. Cambodian food is similar to that of its neighbors to the east and west, but the spices and herbs used in Cambodian cooking give it a unique profile of flavors.
Cambodian street food
Cambodian street food offers a wide range of “fast food” dishes that reflect the country’s rich and diverse culinary heritage. Exploring the streets of Cambodia reveals an array of flavors built with fresh herbs, vegetables, and spices like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. Barbecues, soups, and stir fries comprise the bulk of Cambodian street food, and the five dishes below are the quintessential fare on the streets of the Kingdom of Wonder.
- Lemongrass beef sticks: Grilled beef skewers marinated in the famous Khmer kreung are a dinner staple in Cambodian cities and the countryside.
- Bai sach chrouk: Bai sach chrouk translates roughly as “rice and pork,” and is a popular breakfast dish consisting of sliced marinated pork served over steamed rice with fresh cucumber slices and pickled vegetables.
- Papaya salad: The scorching mix of green papaya, chillies, long beans, tomatoes, and a tangy mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar is not only Cambodia’s omnipresent street food — it’s the darling of all Southeast Asia.
- Kuy teav: This noodle soup made with pork broth, bean sprouts, and various herbs is the Cambodian counterpart of the Vietnamese pho.
- Barbecued chicken legs: These tender and juicy chicken legs are marinated in a mix of spices and grilled at street food stalls across the country just in time for the dinner hour.
- Num pang: Num pang is a Cambodian street food delicacy that tantalizes your taste buds with a crispy baguette stuffed with meat, tangy pickled vegetables, and a medley of savory sauces.
Cambodian street food offers something for everyone, whether you’re a fan of spicy, sweet, or sour flavors. Best of all, Cambodian street food is relatively easy to recreate at home, as long as you’ve got a grill or an oven. Pair your street food meal with a refreshing glass of iced coffee, a fresh exotic fruit smoothie, or an ice-cold beer to experience Cambodia’s authentic taste.
Cambodian desserts feature an assortment of custards, puddings, and fried pastries. These Khmer treats typically incorporate local ingredients, such as coconut milk and shavings, palm sugar, bananas, and banana leaves. Below are four uniquely Cambodian desserts you should consider trying.
- Buttercup squash custard: A creamy custard made with buttercup squash, coconut milk, and sugar.
- Rice flour pancakes: Soft and chewy pancakes made with rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar, often filled with sweet ingredients such as bananas or sweet potatoes.
- Corn pudding: A sweet and savory dessert featuring corn kernels cooked in tapioca pearls, coconut milk, and sugar, often served wrapped in banana leaves.
- Mango passionfruit jam: A tangy and fruity jam made from ripe mangoes and passionfruit, with a hint of sugar.
Most Cambodian desserts — whether it’s pancakes, puddings, or custard — generally require at least intermediate cooking skills to make. That’s because these treats’ defining texture demands careful adherence to the preparation steps.
Cambodian cuisine boasts a large variety of soups, which range from light and refreshing to rich and filling. One essential ingredient in many Cambodian soups is kroeung, a paste that’s generally made from herbs and spices such as lemongrass, shallots, turmeric, and galangal.
In addition to kroeung, Cambodian soups often feature a mix of fresh herbs such as basil, mint, and coriander. These herbs add depth and vibrancy to the flavor profile of the soups. The use of chili, lime juice (or tamarind) and fish sauce in soups like Samlor Machu provides a tangy, spicy balance to the savory broth.
Prahok, a fermented fish paste, lends a unique umami flavor to many Cambodian soups. In Somlor Proher and Samlor Korko, it complements a combination of vegetables, fish, or tofu to create a hearty yet refreshing dish.
Curries are a staple in Cambodian cuisine and are typically served with rice, fresh noodles, or a baguette. The food scene in Cambodia’s urban centers and the countryside boasts a rich assortment of curry dishes prepared with seafood, chicken, beef, and pork. Vegetarian curry options exist, but these are more difficult to come by in the Kingdom of Wonder. Regardless of what the protein of choice is in a Cambodian curry, there’s one unifying ingredient that’s generally common in all Khmer curry variations: kreung. Kreung is the traditional Khmer curry paste that’s made by pounding garlic, turmeric, lime tree leaves, lemongrass, and galangal to a paste-like consistency using a mortar. Kreung gives Cambodian curries their distinct citrusy aroma.
Below are the five popular Cambodian curries you should try.
- Fish amok: Fish amok is a creamy, coconutty fish curry that’s often regarded as the national dish of Cambodia.
- Nom banh chok: Nom banh chok is a traditional Khmer fish curry broth that’s served over rice noodles, fresh vegetables, and aromatic herbs.
- Chicken curry: Chicken curries come in many variations in Cambodia, although the staple recipe is based on kreung, coconut milk, and sweet chillies.
- Sour beef curry: Cambodian sour beef curries are popular in the countryside, and are based on kreung and coconut milk, with the acidity coming from either la giang leaves or tamarind.
- Curry leaf chicken: Curry leaf chicken is an earthy, comforting dish that’s usually made with a full chicken (or duck), curry leaves, and a medley of Cambodian spices, like ginger, garlic, and chilies.
Cambodian curries are not particularly challenging to cook at home, but typically require a solid time investment due to the sheer amount of ingredients that need to be processed. Finding some of the more exotic ingredients (like la giang leaves or fingerroot ginger) may be difficult outside of Southeast Asia, but most curry recipes can be made with commonly available replacements.
Cambodian salads offer a mix of flavors and textures, often combining fruits, vegetables, and herbs with proteins such as beef, pork, or fish. In Cambodia, salads are commonly served as a side dish or a light meal and exhibit flavors that range from tangy to spicy.
Below is a list of nine popular Cambodian salads you should consider making at home.
- Cucumber salad: A refreshing salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage, and dressed with prahok sauce, fish sauce, tamarind sauce, chilies, and coconut milk.
- Mango salad: This hot, tangy salad is a popular side dish made with green, unripe mangoes, shallots, fish sauce and chillies.
- Mango shrimp salad: This salad is similar to the mango salad above, but with the addition of boiled shrimp (or smoked fish) for a more substantial meal.
- Chicken larb: Chicken larb is a minced chicken salad with spices, herbs, and a fish sauce-based dressing. Chicken larb is often served with fresh lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, raw eggplant, and rice.
- Beef larb: A variation of the chicken larb using ground or thinly sliced beef instead.
- Pork larb: Another variation on larb that features minced pork and similar flavors as its chicken and beef counterparts.
- Beef ceviche (plea sach ko): Plea sach ko is a raw beef salad marinated in lime juice, lemongrass, chili, and fish sauce, and is similar to the Latin American ceviche.
- Noodle salad: The Khmer noodle salad typically consists of rice vermicelli (or glass noodles) mixed with vegetables and herbs, often served with a fish sauce dressing and a protein of your choice.
- Pomelo salad: The refreshing pomelo salad combines the sour citrus fruit with pork belly, herbs, fish sauce, and chili.
Cambodian salads are generally quick and simple, and quite suitable for a novice home cook. The only trouble you may find yourself in is trying to source some of the rarer Cambodian ingredients, such as unripe mangoes.
Khmer cuisine wouldn’t be what it is without the famous Cambodian sauces, as these are served with almost every meal. Cambodian sauces generally feature bold flavors from ingredients such as lime, shallots, chili, fish sauce, garlic, galangal, basil, palm sugar, and vinegar.
Below are the six sauces most commonly used to complement Cambodian meals.
- Spicy Cambodian dipping sauce (teuk trey Koh Kong): Teuk trey Koh Kong is a well-balanced sauce made with Cambodian fish sauce, palm sugar or white sugar, lime juice, chili peppers, and garlic. It’s typically served with fried or barbecued seafood and meats.
- Cambodian tamarind dipping sauce: This is a tangy, sweet sauce made from tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, and fresh chilies. It is often served with grilled fish or chicken.
- Fish sauce with chili: A simple yet flavorful sauce made by combining fish sauce, lime juice, chopped bird’s eye chilies, and crushed garlic. It pairs well with grilled meats, seafood, and fresh spring rolls.
- Cambodian steak sauce: The traditional Khmer steak sauce is a bold mix of savory and tangy flavors that pairs perfectly with grilled steak or stir-fried beef dishes.
- Prahok steak sauce: This version of the Cambodian steak sauce contains the distinct flavor of prahok (fermented fish paste), as well as fish sauce, palm sugar, and minced garlic. It adds a unique taste to grilled beef or pork dishes.
- Spring roll dipping sauce: A light, sweet sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, water, minced garlic, and chopped bird’s eye chilies. Typically, it’s served alongside Cambodian-style fried spring rolls (Banh Sung) or crepes (Banh Chao).
Cambodian sauces provide a simple opportunity to spice up almost any meal, whether it’s Cambodian in origin or not. Most ingredients for the sauces we’ve listed above are readily available in Western supermarkets (perhaps with the exception of prahok), and the preparation generally takes mere minutes.
Stir-fries are a popular element of Cambodian food due to their simplicity of preparation. Khmer stir-fries typically feature a bounty of fresh vegetables, herbs, proteins, and occasionally rice or noodles, making them a healthy and flavorful addition to any home cook’s menu.
Cambodian stir-fries often marry bold ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, holy basil, garlic for an aromatic and punchy flavor profile. An essential aspect of Cambodian stir-fry dishes is the use of fish sauce and oyster sauce, which add a pungent and umami-rich element. The resulting flavors may be intense, but they are well balanced with the use of lime, sugar, and other milder ingredients.
Below is a list of five quintessential Cambodian stir fry dishes.
- Shrimp stir-fry: This classic Cambodian stir-fry is a combination of shrimp and herbs cooked in a flavorful sauce, often served with rice or rice noodles.
- Glass noodles stir-fry: This quick stir fry dish features mung bean “cellophane” noodles, garlic, carrots, cabbage, and a protein, such as shrimp or ground meat.
- Seafood stir-fry: This popular stir-fry is a medley of seafood such as squid, octopus, and prawns, cooked with aromatic herbs and spices, such as green peppercorns.
- Holy basil chicken: This is a fragrant and spicy dish made with chicken, lime tree leaves, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and chilies, with holy basil that brings about a hint of classic Thai flavors.
- Butternut squash stir-fry: The Cambodian stir-fry comprises finely chopped butternut squash fried with spices, herbs, oyster sauce, and ground meat.
Cambodian stir-fries are some of the easiest and quickest dishes to make, which makes them a lunch and dinner staple in busy homes. The vast majority of ingredients are available at regular supermarkets, although you may have to venture out to an Asian grocery store for items like galangal or holy basil.
What is the most popular Cambodian dish?
What the most popular Cambodian dish is depends on whom you ask. Any tourist visiting the Kingdom of Wonder is bound to say that fish amok is the most popular dish in the nation — and that’s because it tops the menu lists of almost all tourist-oriented dining establishments. However, ask any local what the most popular Khmer dish is, and you’ll get a mixed bag of answers, with the following three dishes likely being the most common.
- Samlor korko: The famous “mixing” soup
- Nom banh chok: A fish curry that’s colloquially known as “Khmer noodles”
- Kuy teav: A breakfast soup known as “Phnom Penh noodles,” which is Cambodia’s answer to the Vietnamese pho
Is Cambodian food spicy?
Whether Cambodian food is spicy really depends on the diner. Unlike the famously scorching Thai food, Cambodian cuisine is rarely cooked with a lot of spice. However, Khmer dishes are always served with an assortment of spicy sauces, some of which are no less hot than their Thai counterparts. Ultimately, the diner chooses whether, and how much heat they want in their dishes. The same choice applies to ordering street food, where vendors seldom make their meal spicy unless you ask for it, but will happily give you the condiments to induce sweating during your meal.
That said, some Cambodian dishes always pack a punch in terms of spiciness. For example, heat is an absolutely essential ingredient in bok lahong (Cambodian papaya salad) and the green mango salad. As many Khmer would say while eating these salads, “ot hal, ot chnang” (not spicy — not delicious).
In comparison, Thai cuisine is famous for its fiery curries and spicy soups, which typically leave diners with little room to adjust the desired heat level. You either like things hot, or you don’t like Thai food at all.
Vietnamese cuisine also incorporates chili peppers and other spices, but tends to use them in a more subtle way, balancing them with other flavors such as lemongrass and ginger.
What is the difference between Cambodian and Thai food?
The main difference between Cambodian and Thai food is that Thai food is generally cooked with a great deal of spice, whereas Cambodian food is more subtle in terms of heat. Instead, Khmer cuisine focuses more on bold flavors built around the use of aromatic herbs and seasonings. That said, both Thai and Cambodian food is extremely flavorful, and often scorchingly hot. Both cuisines heavily feature citrusy, acidic aromas derived from lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and tamarind. By the same token, Thai and Khmer cuisines are both known for heavy use of coconut milk, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and fermented fish.
Looking at a specific example of similar Thai and Cambodian dishes is an easy way to spot both the similarities and differences between the dishes and their cuisines. For example, an analysis of the ingredients of typical Thai and Cambodian curry pastes (which serve as a base for various dishes in both countries), highlights the following four differences.
- Thai paste includes more spices: The Thai curry paste generally includes cumin, coriander seeds, and black pepper, all of which give the Thai paste its distinct, pleasant aroma. All of these ingredients are notably absent from the Cambodian curry paste.
- Thai paste doesn’t have lime tree leaves: The Thai curry paste typically excludes kaffir lime leaves, which are a vitally important source of aroma in the Cambodian equivalent
- Khmer paste includes more ginger family roots: Cambodian curry paste typically includes turmeric, galangal, ginger, and often fingerroot ginger, all of which give it an earthier, more medicinal aroma than its Thai counterpart.
- Lime tree leaf is key in the Cambodian paste: While Thai curry pastes tend to exclude the lime tree leaf, no Cambodian kreung is made without it.
The aforementioned differences in a key staple ingredient, such as the curry paste, highlights the broader culinary distinctions between Khmer and Thai cuisines.
What is the difference between Cambodian and Vietnamese food?
There are two key differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese food. Firstly, Vietnamese and Khmer cuisines lean on different herbs to produce their distinct flavor profiles. For example, Vietnamese cuisine uses fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, and basil, which add the quintessential “freshness” to Vietnamese dishes. Cambodian ingredients such as turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and lime tree leaf are far more popular, although Khmer cuisine also uses fresh mint, basil, and cilantro. Secondly, Vietnamese and Cambodian sauces are more different than they are similar. For example, Vietnamese sauces tend to be both more pungent and acidic than their Cambodian counterparts. Meanwhile, Cambodian sauces are also known for their use of prahok, garlic, and often coconut milk.