Cambodian herbs and spices give the nation’s cuisine its distinct tastes and aromas. There’s an incredible assortment of herbs that Cambodians add to their dishes, and the nation as a whole is very knowledgeable about (and deeply attached to) the herbs used in various recipes.
In the guide below, we list some of the most essential Cambodian herbs and spices. The list is by no means exhaustive, but gives you a good idea of where Cambodian cuisine gets its flavors.
Most of the herbs used in Cambodian cooking are found throughout Southeast Asia, and feature in countless regional recipes. Below is a compilation of the most essential herbs used in Cambodian cooking.
Noni leaves (Morinda citrifolia)
Leaves of the noni fruit tree are considered a medicinal plant in Cambodia, while the foul-smelling noni fruit itself is said to have antibacterial properties. In non medicinal use, noni leaves are occasionally added to Cambodian curries because their flavor pairs well with coconut milk, a primary base for curries in Southeast Asia.
Moringa leaves (Moringa oleifera)
Curry leaves (Murraya koenigii )
Curry leaves lack the popularity of the citrusy lime tree leaves and lemongrass in Cambodia. However, they’re still an essential ingredient in many rural parts of the country, where the leaves grow in abundance and the locals use them in soups and curries. One of the most common recipes with curry leaves is a chicken (or duck) soup, which boasts a rich, earthy broth with flavors that are quite unique to Southeast Asia.
River leaf creeper (Aganonerion polymorphum)
River leaf creeper (also known as la giang) is a sour herb that can be found in droves throughout the Cambodian countryside. la giang has a sharp, zesty flavor with acidity to match that of lime juice. In Khmer cuisine, the river leaf creeper is commonly used curries, particularly this sour beef curry that’s commonly eaten with fresh baguette.
Kaffir lime leaves (Citrus hystrix)
Kaffir lime leaves are the most indispensable ingredient in Cambodian cooking. Lime tree leaf builds the flavor profile of a number of key Khmer dishes, and it’s one of the first aromas you learn to discern if you’ve just arrived in the Kingdom for the first time. Lime tree leaf has a powerful citrus flavor, and it’s by no means uncontroversial — those who come to love the lime tree leaf call it zesty or tangy, and those who detest it compare it to soap. Nevertheless, there is no such difference of opinion in Cambodia, where the kaffir lime leaf is as common in dishes as the bay leaf is in western cuisines.
Lemongrass is just as critical of an ingredient as the lime tree leaf in Cambodian food. Lemongrass is the basis of a number of Cambodian spice pastes, kreung being the most popular and widely used, and is an essential ingredient in numerous curries, soups, and stir fries. Lemongrass is a zesty, citrusy herb whose aroma is quite strong, dominating the dishes where it’s one of the primary spices.
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Holy basil is a delicate herb that’s common in south and southeast asian cooking, and is a prized ingredient in Cambodian stir fries. Holy basil has a distinct peppery, clove-like taste that goes particularly well with fried, savory dishes, such as fried rice or cha kdau (Cambodia’s famous duck stir fry).
Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora)
Thai basil has an anise, licorice-like flavor that’s indispensable in Cambodian soups, where the herb is added fresh. Take kuy teav or nom banh chok, for example — Thai basil is one of the most taste-defining ingredients in the bowl, where it’s layered fresh right on top of the noodles.
Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum)
Chinese chives (also known as garlic chives) are used in cooking worldwide, but are particularly popular in East and Southeast Asia. In Cambodian cooking, chives are mainly used in stir fries, where they add a garlicky, pungent aroma to the dish. One popular Cambodian dish with chives is the vegetarian tofu bean sprout stir fry. In Thai cuisine, chives are perhaps best known as an essential ingredient in pad thai.
Rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica)
Rice paddy herb grows freely in Cambodian rice fields, just as its name suggests. This herb has a distinct aroma that resembles cumin, with a hint of citrus. In Cambodian cooking, the rice paddy herb is used to add flavor to a variety of soups, including samlar prahaer and various versions of samlar machu.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Coriander (also known as cilantro) is not as popular in Cambodia as it is in neighboring Vietnam. However, cilantro is still often added to various Cambodian broths, such as kuy teav, where its earthy aroma is one of the key flavor-building components.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
Spearmint is the subtler, sweeter cousin of peppermint, which is used extensively in Cambodian cuisine — notably in larb. In larb, spearmint adds freshness and sweetness to balance the tart, umami flavors, as well as the intense heat of the chilis. However, spearmint is also a common ingredient in Cambodian soups, where it adds aroma in combination with (or in absence of) Thai basil.
Sesban flowers (Sesbania grandiflora)
Sesban flowers come from a tree that grows throughout maritime Southeast Asia, but is also common in Cambodia. These little delicate flowers have a mildly bitter flavor that’s reminiscent of peas. In Cambodian cooking, Sesban flowers are usually used to garnish Cambodia’s national dish, nom banh chok, alongside a lavish addition of herbs.
Pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius)
Pandan leaves grow across South and Southeast Asia, and their fragrant, vanilla-like aroma is a valuable addition in a number of dessert dishes. For example, in Cambodia, pandan leaf powder (or extract) is added to the buttercup squash custard, a popular dessert that’s served on special occasions. Elsewhere in Asia, pandan leaves are added to cakes and pudding, too.
The spices listed below are the most crucial sources of flavor in Cambodian cuisine.
Garlic plays an important role in Cambodian cuisine — you’ll find it in almost every Cambodian stir fry, soup, curry, and sauce. In fact, it’s probably easier to list Cambodian dishes that do not have garlic in them (I know one off the top of my head — Khmer breakfast omelet). Garlic’s prevalence in the nation’s kitchens is partly due to its inclusion in kreung (the Cambodian curry paste).
Ginger has a long history of use in Cambodian cuisine, and is most notably known as an essential kreung ingredient. Apart from kreung, ginger is also frequently added to stir fry dishes, such as char knei sach moan (fried ginger chicken).
Turmeric is a key kreung ingredient, to which it lends its quintessential yellow color and earthy flavor. But turmeric sees more uses than just getting smashed into the kreung paste in Cambodia — it’s also added to banh chao batter and the samlar prahaer soup (both of which are, unsurprisinlgy, yellow in color).
Galangal is ginger’s lesser-known cousin, but Cambodian chefs value its piny, peppery flavor and use it extensively in marinades, soups, and stir fries, such as char kdav. Like ginger and turmeric, galangal is also a vital component of the kreung paste.
Fingerroot ginger is occasionally added to the Cambodian kreung paste — namely when one’s making nom banh chok. Fingerroot ginger tastes much like galangal, but is slightly milder, but still has peppery, medicinal tones.
Kamport pepper is one of Cambodia’s greatest treasures, and one of its most highly valued agricultural exports. Black Kampot pepper is cultivated exclusively in the sun-washed, humid Kampot province, and its cultivation and preparation methods have been passed down through Cambodian families for generations. Today, Kampot pepper is in demand by the world’s finest restaurants, where its sweet, unique flavor profile sets it apart from other pepper cultivars.
In Cambodia, Kampot pepper is generally used the way any black pepper is. However, the green peppercorns are particularly popular in seafood dishes, such as the green pepper squid stir fry or the Kampot pepper crab.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Cambodian (non-dessert) dish that doesn’t have chili peppers in it. The overwhelming majority of Cambodian sauces, soups, stir fries and barbecue marinades comprise chili peppers. Cambodian cuisine may not be as spicy as its Thai cousin, but there’s a famous Khmer saying that nonetheless affirms the great importance of chillies’ heat — “not spicy — not delicious”.