Sauces are the lifeblood of Cambodian gastronomy. Khmer food is often described as “bland” compared to the fiery Thai or the aromatic Vietnamese cuisines. But this description is as untrue as it is unjust: Cambodian food is intentionally tame, but the sauces with which Khmer chefs serve it give it life, spirit, and meaning.
If you find that the dish in front of you is overly light on seasoning, it’s because you’re not eating it with the correct sauce.
6 Most Essential Cambodian Sauces
There are plenty of Cambodian sauce varieties, all of which are meant to go with a specific type of dish. Below, we’ll introduce you to 6 of the most classic Cambodian sauces. Most of these sauces don’t require any exotic ingredients you wouldn’t find in a US supermarket and preparing these dips shouldn’t take over 15 minutes. If any of these sauces peak your interest, go ahead and click on the recipe link to the get complete preparation instructions (some recipes are still under development — our apologies).
1. Sweet, Sour, and Spicy Dipping Sauce (Tuek Trey Koh Kong)
Tuek Trey Koh Kong (also known as Tuek Trey Bawk) is the one Cambodian sauce you’ll probably encounter in any corner of Cambodia, regardless of what meal is being served. The sauce’s popularity has a lot to do with how versatile it is — it’s the perfect condiment for seafood, grilled chicken or other meat, and fresh vegetables alike. The key to this sauce’s universality is its delicately balanced taste that pairs well with just about anything — seeing Tuek Trey Koh Kong on your dinner table is a guarantee of a delicious meal under almost any circumstances. Teuk Trey Koh Kong is equally savoury, sour, sweet, piquant, and spicy, a complex flavour profile brings a refreshing excitement to the palette without overpowering the dish with which you serve it.
To create the unique flavor balance of Teuk Trey Koh Kong, Cambodian cooks traditionally use five primary ingredients — Cambodian fish sauce (savouriness), palm or white sugar (sweetness), lime juice (tartness), chilli peppers (heat), and garlic (piquancy). The exact proportion of each ingredient varies depending on the cook’s preference; however, we’ve written an authentic recipe for Teuk Trey Koh Kong, which we think captures the delicious essence of this popular Cambodian sauce well.
2. Cambodian Tamarind Sauce for Seafood
This Cambodian tamarind sauce is a popular dip for seafood, particularly for grilled or deep-fried fish. Barbecued seafood generally goes well with sour dips, and this tamarind sauce is no exception. Dip a chunk of grilled white fish into this rich, thick, chutney-like condiment, and you’ll reward your mouth with invigorating tartness, fruity tones, and pungent aroma.
Cambodian tamarind sauce gets its unique aroma from the fusion of the following key ingredients — tamarind (zest), fish sauce (pungent saltiness), chilli peppers (heat), shallots and garlic (sharp aroma), and sugar (sweetness). Preparing this Cambodian sauce is a simple affair that won’t take you more than 10 minutes. You can find the detailed instructions for making this seafood dipping sauce here, but the short version is this: You mix the tamarind paste, sugar, fish sauce, chillies, garlic, and shallots together and enjoy. Note that with this delicious Cambodian sauce, you’re not compromising on nutrition, either — all of the ingredients come packed with essential nutrients, so this condiment is actually quite healthy.
3. Cambodian Fish Sauce with Chilli
Fish sauce with chilli is perhaps the simples Cambodian sauce you’ll ever make. All you need to prepare this condiment is a quality Cambodian fish sauce (use a Thai fish sauce if a Khmer one isn’t available), some chillies, and sugar, and you’ll get a condiment that’s salty, piquant, and scorchingly hot. Apart from the straightforward preparation, what we love about this sauce is that the bold chilli flavor dominates and subdues the sharp fish sauce aroma (which, on its own, isn’t really for everyone).
This fish sauce with chilli is an ideal way to add both saltiness, heat, and flavor to a dish that may lack these flavors on its own. For example, in Cambodia, this sauce is commonly used over Khmer rice noodles, butternut squash stir fry, and soups like samlor korko. Our recipe for this simple fish sauce with chilli will be available in the near future.
4. Cambodian Steak Sauce
Cambodian steak sauce is a citrusy, savoury dip that’s characterized by the fragrance of freshly crushed black pepper. Black pepper (particularly the cultivar produced in the southern Kampot province) is one of Cambodia’s most precious commodities that’s been used in Parisian restaurants since the days of the French protectorate. Nowadays, Kampot pepper is still prized for its delicate aroma, and commands a price that’s commensurate with its culinary reputation and scarcity. Luckily, Cambodian steak sauce can be made with any black pepper you can get your hands on — as long as you crush or grind the peppercorns immediately before preparation (doing so preserves their flavor). Other ingredients include garlic, chillies, lime juice, and salt — a mixture of ingredients that produces a delectable dip and goes so well with grilled beef, other BBQ meats, and even grilled eggs. Our recipe for this steak dipping sauce is coming soon!
5. Prahok Steak Sauce
This prahok steak sauce is a popular alternative to the black pepper-based steak dip, and an absolute must if you’re exploring Cambodian sauces. Prahok’s piquant taste is the defining characteristic of this sauce (as it is in many popular Khmer dishes, like Prahok Ktiss and Nom Banh Chok). That said, the prahok is diluted enough by other fragrant ingredients (such as lemongrass and garlic) that its aroma will not offend your nostrils. Other ingredients include garlic, chilli, peanuts, lemongrass, and lime juice.
The prahok steak dip is served with various meat dishes in Cambodia, but you’ll mostly find it as a condiment of choice with grilled beef. We’re working to have a recipe for this delicious steak sauce published soon.
6. Spring Roll Dipping Sauce (Banh Sung Sauce)
Cambodian spring roll dipping sauce (known locally as Banh Sung sauce) is a refreshing dip that pairs with any deep-fried spring roll and banh chao (Khmer-style pancakes) and lort cha (Cambodian fried pin noodles). Banh sung sauce is made with a base of fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar, along with shallots, chillies, carrots, and crushed roasted peanuts. The vinegar and fish sauce base give this sauce its bold, salty, and sour taste. Meanwhile, the roasted peanuts infuse banh sung sauce with its distinct, nutty aroma that contrasts so well with the sharp base. We’ll soon have a recipe ready for this delicious sauce, so don’t forget to check back in a little while.
Cambodian Sauces: Parting Words
Sauces define Khmer food, and above we’ve introduced you to the 6 quintessential Cambodian sauces. Have you tried making any of the sauces above, or any other Cambodian sauce? If so, what is your favorite Cambodian sauce and what do you eat it with? Please share your thoughts in the comment sections below.