Cambodian street food is the forgotten orphan of Southeast Asia. Cambodian street food is still an enigma, at least to those who’ve never walked and tasted the streets of Cambodia’s cities. Meanwhile, Thai fried noodles, Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice, and Vietnamese pho get lots of well-deserved recognition worldwide.
Even if you’ve had the chance to be a foodie in the Kingdom of Wonder, chances are that you’ve walked away disappointed. Authentic Cambodian food is not that easy to find if you’re a foreigner. As a tourist, you’re more likely to see half-baked Cambodian attempts at Western dishes as you walk along a city street. Take stock of Phnom Penh’s myriad sandwich boards, and you’ll find all sorts of burgers, salads, nachos, burritos, happy pizzas, and other occidental concoctions. I’ve had a boiled potato with canned tuna at one of these tourist-focused restaurants, for instance; let’s just say it was a let down and leave it there. In light of this, you’ll wonder: Where’s the real Cambodian street food?
The reason behind the seemingly Western selection of fast food is simple: Cambodians genuinely believe that Khmer cuisine repels foreigners. You can’t blame them. I know few westerners who salivate upon smelling prahok, Cambodia’s famed fermented fish paste. Likewise, not many tourists stand in line for a helping of grilled pork intestines or roasted crickets. But Cambodian street food is so much more than these controversial delicacies — you just have to know where to find the good stuff. From Battambang to Kampot, city streets boast an eye-popping selection of mouth watering street food that should be palatable to the pickiest of diners. At night, you’ll find grilled beef sticks, papaya salad, barbecued chicken, and other iconic dishes. And in the morning, you’ll be greeted by a hot bowl of kuy teav or smoky pork and rice — the choice is yours.
From Battambang to Kampot, city streets boast an eye-popping selection of mouth watering street food that should be palatable to the pickiest of diners.
6 Iconic Cambodian Street Food Dishes
In this article, we will take you on a walk through the cities of Cambodia and introduce you to the most renowned street food dishes, with links to our recipes. Most of these you can make at home without expanding much effort or having to source exotic ingredients.
Grilled Beef Skewers
Grilled beef skewers top our list of Cambodian street food for a reason — they’re the quintessential dinner dish that you’ll find in every corner of Cambodia. Just as the sun starts to set, the nation’s charcoal grills come alive with the aromatic smoke and unmistakable sizzle of these tiny beef skewers. These beef sticks are immensely popular with locals for their unforgettable citrusy flavor; and, because they’re so affordable (4 skewers will set you back $1-$2, depending on where you are). And since they’re so popular, the street food hawks who sell beef skewers amass long lineups around the dinner hour and their precious product sells out fast. So, if you’re hoping to get your hands on grilled beef skewers while visiting the Kingdom of Wonder, don’t waste time and get down to the closest street food stall around 5pm.
Luckily, you don’t need to be in Cambodia to try this iconic street food dish — Khmer grilled beef skewers are simple enough to make anywhere if you’ve got the key ingredients. To make Cambodian beef sticks at home, you do need a few exotic components, but these should be easy enough to source if there’s an Asian supermarket nearby. You’ll need lemongrass, lime tree leaf, turmeric, galangal, garlic, chili peppers, and fish sauce. Once you have these ingredients handy, the preparation steps are a breeze — you can get our full grilled beef skewers recipe here.
In Cambodia, grilled beef skewers are generally served with a green papaya side dish. This side is a type of papaya salad (which is much easier to make than the green papaya salad, i.e. som tam or bok lahong). This green papaya side is zesty, savory, and full of heat — a perfect complement to the soft, smoky beef skewers. You can learn how to make our green papaya side here.
Bai Sach Chrouk (Pork and Rice)
Bai Sach Chrouk is one of two classic Cambodian breakfast dishes (Kuy Teav is the other). Meaning “rice pork” in English, bai sach chrouk is much more than it’s verbatim translation: it’s the aroma of Phnom Penh’s boulevards at sunrise; it’s Cambodia’s answer to bacon and eggs; it’s the reason Cambodians get out of bed in the morning. Served with a refreshing iced coffee or jasmine tea, bai sach chrouk offers diners a calorie-packed breakfast of grilled pork, steamed rice, pickled vegetables, and the classic Cambodian dipping sauce — teuk trei Koh Kong. Like all Cambodian street food that exists fleetingly during a certain meal hour, bai sach chrouk disappears from restaurants quickly — by about 8am, just after breakfast.
To make bai sach chrouk at home, you’ll need a grill; that said, a cast iron skillet will stand in just fine if you don’t. Apart from the surface on which you’ll barbecue (or fry, if you must) the juicy pork bits, you’ll need a few must-have ingredients to make the marinade. These bai sach chrouk essentials include garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, chillies, MSG, and sugar, all of which can be found in most large US supermarkets. The preparation is straightforward, too — you can check out our bai sach chrouk recipe here.
The entremets with which you’ll serve bai sach chrouk are just as vital as the main dish itself. What you want — ideally — is a side that’s equal parts acidic and hot. Cambodian pickled vegetables are an easy choice (recipe coming up!), but you needn’t limit yourself to Southeast Asian fare. Good old dill pickles, with a few chili peppers, will do splendidly as a side to bai sach chrouk. A simple omelet and a bowl of steamed rice are the other bai sach chrouk sidekicks that pair well with the smoky pork (and ones that will keep you full for hours after breakfast).
Bok Lahong (Green Papaya Salad)
Green papaya salad is the archetypal street food dish in all Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia. Bok Lahong, as papaya salad is known in the Kingdom, comes in all shapes and flavors in most of the nation’s cities and villages. Papaya salad with pickled crab? Check. One with shrimp paste instead? Done. A simple one with prahok? Of course. And the ingredients go far beyond the obvious. Apart from the unripe papaya shreds and your choice of protein, there’s the dressing. Oh, the dressing. Made with as many chillies as your mouth can handle, fish sauce, lime, and sugar, it’s a fiery, mouth-scorching affair that satisfies with intense, yet oddly refreshing flavors.
If you’re making bok lahong at home, know this: Papaya salad is a sacred culinary tradition, and you must approach it as such if you wish to recreate its unique, invigorating taste. You need all the key ingredients in your kitchen before you start annoying your neighbors with the mortar and pestle: Substitutions don’t work for papaya salads. And here’s what you’ll need to make papaya salad at home:
- A real, UNRIPE papaya: Most papayas at North American supermarkets look green, but hide a hideous yellow fiber beneath their deceivingly unripe skins. And while these semi-ripe papayas are great for desserts, they have no place in a Southeast Asian papaya salad. What you’ll need is a papaya that’s green both on the outside and the inside; and to find such a rarity, you’ll need to head to your local Asian grocer — any other supermarket will sell you the (worthless) ripe variety.
- A suitable protein: Unless you’re vegetarian, your papaya salad will need some sort of a protein to claim its authenticity. Soya doesn’t count (sorry). But chicken breast won’t do, either — you need something pungent and fermented, like prahok (Cambodian fermented fish paste), kapi (shrimp paste), or pickled crabs (good luck finding them in North American stores, but you can make your own).
- A mortar and pestle: Forget the blender, unplug the food processor, leave the grater alone. Sometimes the old ways work best, and with papaya salad, there’s a reason for it — pounding the ingredients with a pestle infuses the papaya shreds with the flavors of the dressing. And that’s something no Cuisinart doodad can do, no matter how much you pay for it. So, forget automation and invest in a good mortar and pestle — your taste buds (and wallet) will thank you for it.
Kuy Teav (Phnom Penh Noodles)
If you’ve ever wondered why people in Southeast Asia have soup for breakfast, go ahead and try a bowl of Kuy Teav at any Phnom Penh street food stall in the morning — you’ll have your answer. Similar to Vietnamese pho, Kuy Teav features a rich, slow-cooked bone-based broth with a combination of aromatic herbs and vegetables, and an array of meats. The choice of protein includes shrimps, thinly sliced beef brisket, pork intestines, and any other meat of choice — your imagination is the only limit. However, while pho is generally prepared with beef bones, kuy teav (and its Vietnamese counterpart, hu tieu) is made with pork bones instead.
Kuy Teav (also known as Phnom Penh noodles) is a traditional breakfast dish is the typical alternative to bai sach chrouk, and a favorite on the cooler days during the rainy season. Kuy Teav gets its name from the type of thin, flat noodles used in the soup. If you’re walking down a city street in the morning and spot large sooty cauldrons steaming away over a wood fire, chances are the stall sells kuy teav. In fact, the owner will likely have an assortment of noodles for you to choose from — glass noodles (mi suo), egg noodles, pin noodles (lot), can all be used in the kuy teav broth. To get the broth its opulent taste and aroma, the owner will have started boiling the pork bones in the wee hours of the morning, long before the first buzz of the motorbikes ushers in hordes of hungry diners. The longer those pork bones simmer, the more delicious and rich the broth will become.
If you want to try making your own kuy teav at home, bear in mind that you’ll need to reserve several hours of your day for the preparation. The good news is that you can easily freeze the broth you’ve made (in portions), then thaw it out and make fresh kuy teav at home any time you like. The other bit of great news is that you don’t need any fancy ingredients to make Phnom Penh noodle soup; you won’t even need to venture out to an Asian grocery store. You can find out more about the ingredients and preparation steps of this Khmer street food classic in our Kuy Teav recipe here.
Barbecued Chicken Legs
No Cambodian street food list is complete without barbecued chicken — and chicken legs in particular. The beautiful, rosy, crispy legs are a popular pairing with other street food dishes, like bok lahong. In Phnom Penh and elsewhere, you’ll see street vendors firing up their grills and basting the smouldering legs as starved diners wait for a take out dinner on their way from work.
There are a few things that make Cambodian barbecued chicken legs so special. First, the chicken is marinated in a mixture of honey, soy sauce, garlic, and crushed cilantro roots. This marinade gives the chicken a unique flavor that is both savory and slightly sweet, with earthy tones from the cilantro. Second, the chicken legs are cooked over an open flame, which is how they get their charred flavor. Finally, the grilled legs are served with a a zesty salad — papaya salad is an excellent choice — and the famous Koh Kong dipping sauce. (A cold beer is a must with these BBQ chicken legs, too.)
To make grilled chicken legs at home Cambodian-style, you’ll need few ingredients, and you can choose to bake the legs instead of grilling with similar results. You can learn how to recreate this street food barbecue chicken recipe here.
Wonder through a Cambodian city for longer than an hour, and you’re bound to see a street food hawker selling grilled eggs from atop their motorike. You may not discern what the hawker’s loudspeaker is saying on repeat, but if you look right behind the rider, you’ll see a square crate with eggs secured to the back of the bike with bungee cords (or some other contraption). These are, in fact, grilled eggs. But they’re not grilled whole. These eggs are the fruits of a laborious process that sees their contents drained, mixed with various spices and condiments, then returned to the egg via a funnel, before getting steamed and finally barbecued. The result is an unexpected, delectable snack that’ll keep your taste buds happy and your belly full as you bar hop your way through the city. Likewise, at home, grilled eggs will be an unforgettable hors d’oeuvre the next time you entertain.
Grilling eggs at home the Cambodian way requires a bit of patience and some key equipment — notably a grill and a steamer rack. The ingredients, on the other hand, are simple and readily available at any supermarket. If you’re ready to give this Cambodian street food snack a try, go ahead and check out our 30-minute grilled eggs recipe.
Parting Words on Cambodia’s Street Food
Hopefully, our humble chronicle on Cambodian street food dishes will inspire you to cook one yourself. We’ll be updating this page with more dishes and links to recipes, so be sure to bookmark it and visit again soon!
If you’ve already made one of these Cambodian recipes, how did you like it? And if you’ve been to the Kingdom of Wonder and tasted the local street fare, which dish was your favorite?
Go ahead and share your experiences with our readers by leaving a comment below!