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Savor the culinary delights of one of Southeast Asia’s most broad and delicious cuisines with these Cambodian foods, and discover fascinating dishes dating back over a thousand years ago.
Cambodian cuisine is a unique mix of Southeast Asian cuisine and influences from India, China, and France, layered over a foundation laid down by the Khmer people, with many of their ancient culinary traditions and dishes still used to this day.
I am so excited you’re joining me on a journey through time, full of intrigue, awe, and mouthwatering fusions, as together we take a closer look at 18 of Cambodia’s most popular and iconic foods (as recommended by a local).
1 – Num Banh Chok (Khmer Noodles)
There’s a saying that you’re not a real Cambodian if you don’t adore the taste of num banh chok! This dish is a national treasure, featuring mildly fermented rice noodles, made from rice soaked for up to four hours.
The soaked rice is then ground into a paste, pressed, dried in bags made from coarse, semi-processed cotton, known as calico, reduced again into a paste, and finally turned into noodles via a process of extrusion in boiling water. Yes, for us Cambodians, making food is a true labor of love!
Once the rice noodles have boiled for a few minutes, they are transferred to cold water. Finally, the noodles are added to a broth consisting of fermented freshwater fish, coconut milk, sugar, and fresh herbs and vegetables such as bean sprouts, sliced cucumber, and lily stems.
The infusion of spice, and the ingredient that really elevates the dish, comes from yellow kroeung, with the Khmer word kroeung referring to any type of mixed spice and herb paste used in cooking. Kroeung is used as a base flavor in so many dishes, and these mixed pastes form the bedrock of Cambodian and Khmer cuisine.
The dish is known for the melt-in-mouth texture of the noodles, its irresistible aroma, and its invigorating chili kick that balances the sweetness of the coconut milk and sugar.
You’ll find this dish all over Cambodia, with different variations of the recipe found in every region. In fact, families in local villages will often prepare num banh chok for local festivals as an offering to the gods, and the dish is certainly a worthy tribute.
2 – Kuyteav (Rice Noodle Soup)
Kuyteav is arguably the nation’s favorite breakfast. This flavorsome rice noodle soup has a pork stock base and can contain a range of ingredients and toppings, including succulent meats and seasonal vegetables, with garnishes including chili pickles, fermented soybeans, garlic, and crushed pepper. It shares similarities with Chinese noodle soups, albeit a little lighter and more aromatic.
‘Flavor’ really is the keyword when it comes to this breakfast dish. You can realistically segment kuyteav into three parts: rice noodles, broth, and toppings, all three of which include a vast array of flavors and ingredients.
The rice noodles are prepared first, boiled in water, strained, then mixed with a type of garlic oil, and finally coated with a sweet oyster and soy sauce dressing. These noodles are added to a rich, hot broth, prepared separately, made from pork bones and sometimes squid, with sweetness from the addition of sugar and pungent, briny notes from the use of fish sauce.
The toppings can be humble, such as ground pork, or extravagant, like sliced pork belly or roast duck, depending on who is eating it and where it is being served. Kuyteav served in Phnom Penh restaurants, for example, is often considered the most extravagant version of the dish.
3 – Bobor Kroeung (Rice Soup)
Bobor kroeung is a wholesome Cambodian porridge-like soup, consisting of a broth of boiled rice and water, to which commonly fish, but also dried shrimp, chicken, or pork, is added, accompanied by a range of fresh seasonal vegetables, oil, and seasonings. You can tweak the recipe depending on your personal preference.
A kroeung consisting of lemongrass, turmeric, lime leaves, and garlic truly elevates the flavor of this beloved staple. The tenderness of the meat and aroma of the broth alone are enough to lure you in, let alone the taste!
While commonly eaten for breakfast, you can eat it at any time of day. This is the soup I turn to whenever I have a cold or flu, or when I want to snuggle up with a cozy dish during the wet season.
4 – Samlor/Somlor Machu (Sour Soup)
Samlar/Somlor machu is a blanket term for a range of sour soups that take so many Cambodians straight back to childhood. These soups are traditionally eaten at family gatherings, such as weddings or birthdays, but you should definitely try them in Cambodia regardless of whether you’re attending an event or not.
Commonly, tamarind is a key ingredient in these soups, which laces the broth with sour, sweet, and tangy notes. Variations are plentiful, and other common ingredients include prahok, a fermented fish paste used to season dishes, fruits and vegetables known for their sweetness and tang, such as tomatoes, and herbs and plants common in Southeast Asian cuisine, such as water spinach.
Often paired with a range of different meats, there are plenty of sour soups to try in Cambodia. Keep your eyes out (and senses on standby) in particular for samlar machu yuon, which combines pineapple and tomatoes with dried fish and lobster, samlar machu srae, bringing crab, fresh and dried fish, and green papaya to the foray, and samlar machu ktis, which combines pork with coconut milk and pineapple in a tart and creamy broth.
5 – Cha Kdav (Spicy Stir-Fry)
You can’t talk about Cambodian stir-fries without putting the spotlight on cha kdav, renowned for its comforting yet spicy flavor, diversity, and huge popularity throughout the country.
A popular street food in Cambodia, you won’t have to look too far to find a food cart willing to fry up a plate of this fiery delight with a side of rice and refreshing juice.
This simple stir-fry is made by frying commonly chicken with garlic, peanuts, chili, lime leaves, lemongrass, and basil. However, you won’t have to look too hard to find versions with pork, beef, fish, shrimp, and even some more daring meats for Western tastes, such as cockles, offals, or chicken feet.
Most Cambodian families cook some type of cha kdav on a weekly basis. It’s simple, inexpensive to make, and ideal for feeding the whole family.
6 – Plear Sach Ko (Beef Salad)
Plear sach ko is a beef salad of mouthwatering proportions. Cambodians don’t typically eat salads, but they will make an expectation for this lavish dish that is commonly served for special occasions, such as weddings or holiday celebrations.
The star of the salad is raw or lightly cooked high-quality beef that has been cured with a lime and prahok mixture, served with a salad of mint, basil, radish, crushed peanuts, Asian shallots, and other ingredients depending on preference.
Sometimes switched for tripe, the beef used in the dish is always of premium quality, and hence is very expensive to both make and eat at restaurants. Unless from wealthier higher classes, most Cambodians will only eat this dish, as mentioned, for special occasions.
7 – Ko Laeng Phnom (Hot Pot)
No one truly knows for sure how ko laeng phnom found its way into Cambodian cuisine. Many believe that it was introduced during the Japanese occupation during WWII. Regardless, however, of how it got here, today ko laeng phnom remains one of the most popular foods at Cambodian family gatherings and parties.
Essentially a Cambodian-style hot pot, you can use a wide variety of ingredients in this dish, combining meat such as beef, chicken, fish, or seafood, with a range of fresh vegetables and herbs in a hearty broth. All the ingredients are cooked in a specialized pot over a stovetop or open flame, starting with the chosen meat, before the vegetables are added.
A dash of chili or pepper sauce adds a welcome dose of heat, and enjoyed with a crisp, chilled beer or local liquor, this is a great choice when eating with a large group of people in Cambodia.
8 – Amok (Steamed Curry)
Amok is any type of steamed curry, with amok trei, or fish amok, being the most popular in Cambodia. This tender, fragrant curry typically sees chefs coat fresh fillets of either goby, snakehead, or catfish in a marinade of green or yellow kroeung, coconut milk or cream, and egg, before steaming the mixture on a bed of great morinda or Swiss chard leaves inside a banana leaf wrap.
The perfect amok has a soft, mousse-like consistency, and while it can be eaten as a creamy curry on its own, it’s usually enjoyed with white or black rice.
Amok can also be made with chicken, beef, or pork. It is far more common to find this curry in a restaurant than a home kitchen, and locals will always recommend enjoying it with a super cold beer.
9 – Prahok (Fermented Fish Paste)
For adventurous foodies, prahok is definitely one to add to your must-try list. Be warned, however, because the blue cheese-like aroma and strong flavor of this fermented fish paste are definitely not to everyone’s liking!
I’ve already mentioned prahok several times in this food list, because it is widely used in a range of soups and dishes as a seasoning to add flavor. However, prahok, in its paste-like form, can also be eaten as a dish in its own right.
You can try it in a few different ways. For example, prahok chien is a dish of fried prahok with beef or pork and chili, eaten like a dip, while prahok kab, or covered prahok, sees the paste wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked underneath rocks placed over hot coals or fire.
There are also the likes of prahok linge, consisting of either fish, chicken, beef, or pork fried with garlic, red onion, lots of chili, and prahok. The meat and prahok combine together beautifully once they’re fried, and it helps to throw in a few side vegetables like cabbage, eggplant, and cucumber to freshen up the plate, too.
There is a version of raw prahok, known as prahok chhau, that combines the dish with lemongrass, lime juice, eggplant, and peppers, and is traditionally eaten with rare beef steak. However, proceed with caution, because it is not recommended to eat prahok raw.
Prahok, when not used as a seasoning, is definitely one of Cambodia’s exotic and more daring dishes to try, up there with the likes of fried scorpions and tarantulas.
10 – Mi Hel (Spicy Noodles)
Mi hel is a comparatively new dish that is becoming extremely popular in the cities. It roughly translates to “spicy noodles”, and is essentially a Cambodian twist on the classic Korean kimchi noodles.
The dish is made by boiling noodles in a meat-based broth, commonly pork, beef, or shrimp. The spice comes from the addition of kimchi, a super spicy fermented cabbage that is a renowned staple of Korean cuisine.
It’s served piping hot, rife with spice, and pairs wonderfully with an ice-cold soda or a frosty local beer at any time of the day.
11 – Mi Cha (Fried Noodles)
Mi cha is one of the tastiest and most convenient Cambodian dishes, coming from very humble beginnings. It was originally classified as peasant food, usually eaten by farmers, construction, and factory workers, but today it’s popular with Cambodians from all walks of life.
It is a simple dish of pork or beef fried with garlic and fresh vegetables, and at most street food stalls, you can add a fried egg on top for a small additional fee.
Mi cha is eaten as a convenient quick snack at all times of the day. It is a hugely popular dish of the Cambodian street food scene, with hundreds of styrofoam trays packed with these delicious fried noodles changing hands every minute in Siem Reap city alone.
12 – Samlor Kako (Vegetable Stew)
A traditional soup, and one of Cambodia’s beloved national dishes, Cambodian cooking doesn’t come more honest and resourceful than samlar kako.
Consisting of a base including green kroeung, prahok, and ground rice, a wide range of seasonal vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices can be used to make this stew, depending on preference.
It’s known as a vegetable stew because you can easily omit the meat. However, meat-based samlar kako is rife throughout the country, with moist catfish, meaty pork, or tender chicken being the most common go-to meat options.
Like bobor kroeung, this is another dish Cambodians like me turn to when we’re feeling a little under the weather. It’s wholesome, nutritious, and good for the soul, too!
13 – Lok Luk (Beef Salad)
French-influenced, and also a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian beef lok lak is a favorite of both locals and tourists.
This beloved national dish consists of tender beef, sliced into squares, marinated in an oyster and chili sauce, garlic, and Kampot pepper, and pan-fried. Once the meat is cooked, it’s served with a side of onion, and fresh salad (often cucumber, tomatoes, and lettuce), topped with pepper and soy sauce, and finished with white rice.
14 – Koh Sach Chrouk (Braised Pork Stew)
If you enjoy sweet notes in your main dishes, you’ll definitely enjoy koh sach chrouk. This is a dish of pork glazed in delicious sugar syrup and braised in a dark broth, creating the perfect balance of sweet and savory with each and every mouthful.
Boiled eggs, cloves, and garlic are some of the key ingredients added to the stew, which is slow-cooked until the meat is really tender. This is one of the main dishes served at large Cambodian festivals, and we Cambodians simply can’t get enough of this melt-in-mouth meat stew.
Koh sach chrouk is also a popular dish in Siem Reap, particularly when the weather gets cold around the festive holiday season.
Desserts and Cakes
15 – Kralan (Bamboo Sticky Rice)
Popular throughout Southeast Asia, in the likes of Lao, Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese cuisine, kralan is a dish of white sticky rice, coconut milk, grated coconut, palm sugar, and black beans, packed into a bamboo tube and roasted for around two hours over an open flame.
The dish has an irresistibly sweet aroma, and the unique cooking technique brings about some truly sumptuous flavors.
Sticky rice dishes like kralan, incredibly, have existed for over a thousand years. When food preservation methods were not as advanced, farmers needed filling and nutritious foods that, one, they could carry with them in the fields, hence the bamboo tubes, and two, would keep and stay edible in the searing heat.
16 – Num Poum (Coconut Waffles)
Num poum are traditional coconut waffles, made from rice flour, coconut cream, grated coconut, palm sugar, salt, and eggs. Once the ingredients have been kneaded into a dough, the dough is rolled out, cut into rectangles, and the waffles are heated over a metal grate for a couple of minutes on each side.
Num poum are a popular breakfast dish, particularly in villages and rural areas of Cambodia. However, the sweet snack has really made a name for itself as a popular street food in recent times.
17 – Num Ansom (Banana Sticky Rice)
Num ansom is one of the most important dishes of Cambodian cuisine. This sweet and wholesome snack is a dish of glutinous sticky rice with various sweet or savory fillings, some of which include banana, pork belly or jackfruit, or mung beans, among others, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed for several hours.
Most Cambodian families will make num ansom at least twice a year for national holidays – Pchum Ben and Cambodian New Year. It’s a dish deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, cropping up in folklore and children’s books.
Num ansom is closely associated with another steamed dish, num kom. The cylindrical num ansom, representing Shiva, and the pyramid-shaped num kom, representing Uma, continue to be important parts of traditional Khmer weddings to this day. The cakes are also a symbol of the two heads of the household, who are now bound in marriage.
18 – Num Chak Kachan (Steamed Layered Rice Cake)
Num chak kachan is one of the most colorful dishes you’ll find in all of Southeast Asia. This Khmer dessert is made from a steamed mixture of rice flour, coconut cream, and palm sugar.
The dessert consists of stacked layers of this sweet steamed mixture, each colored with different food dyes, to create a beautiful striped and rainbow-pattern treat, that is commonly served in rectangular portions.
Both children and adults adore this vibrant dish, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a dessert that not only tastes delicious but is bound to get some love on your Instagram!
Cambodian Food Summary
From its humble ingredients, including seafood from the Gulf of Thailand and rice from the plentiful paddy fields, to its vast culinary influences from Asia and Europe, Cambodian cuisine really is a unique culinary blend of flavors and fusions that has been shaped by so many factors.
Food should be an integral part of your visit to Cambodia. Take in the energy of the night markets, watch food vendors demonstrate their craft before your very eyes, and be sure to try all these dishes, and more, no matter where you find yourself in the country.
You Might Also Like to Read
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- Vietnamese Food: 17 Popular and Traditional Dishes You Need to Try
- 19 Places to Visit in Cambodia for Some Truly Jaw-Dropping Experiences
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Local Insight Contributor: Roeun Thoeun is a Khmer-English translator, interpreter, and proofreader, who also has a wealth of experience as a tour guide. He is deeply passionate about all things Cambodian travel, cuisine, and culture.