Cambodian cuisine suffers from constant comparison with the food of its neighbours- Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east- often coming off second best. “Kind of like bland Thai food” or “sort of like Vietnamese but not as good” seems to be the general consensus of travellers who visit the Kingdom.
Sure some of the dishes share similarities after all Cambodia and Thailand’s relationship dates back to the 13th century and Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam for 10 years from the late 70’s. But spend a little time and delve a little deeper and you will uncover a complex cuisine that is distinct from its neighbours- pungent and bitter flavours and the use of unique ingredients like prahok- salted and fermented fish, sets Khmer food apart.
If you’re visiting the capital, Phnom Penh will provide the perfect introduction to Cambodian food culture, here are a few of our favourite spots to get you started:
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1. Nom krok at BKK1 Wet Market
One taste of nom krok and you’ll be seeking out this street food every day of your stay in Cambodia. Head to BKK wet market where you’ll find a longstanding stall which specialises in these savoury coconut milk snacks. The stall is in the centre of the cooked food section of the market, here you’ll find five women, each perched on a stool, four with griddle pans in front of them and the fifth in charge of ladling the nom krok batter which includes coconut milk, rice flour and spring onions into the pans. The women use long chopsticks to turn the nom krok- spinning them to ensure even cooking.
Pull up a chair and order a plate of the crispy balls, which arrive with a dipping sauce made up of coconut milk, fish sauce and sugar. Add a dollop of fresh chilli from the pot on the table and dunk your nom krok. The crispy shell shatters to give way to a wobbly, milky interior- not dissimilar to Japanese takoyaki in texture. We guarantee you’ll put in an order for another plate before your first is finished!
Eat at: Nom krok stall at BKK1 Wet Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Open daily.
2. Num banh chok at Sophath
For a taste of traditional Khmer food make sure you wolf down a bowl of num banh chok- fermented rice noodles wallowing in a fish curry gravy. The fermented rice noodles are still made by hand through a laborious, time-consuming process- which makes this dish even more special. They’re served room temperature with a tepid coconut milk based fish curry poured over the top and finished with herbs of your choosing.
This dish will open up your palate to Cambodia’s native herbs and flora- crunchy, yellow sesbania flowers which taste like sweet peas, pale pink water hyacinth flowers, raw long beans, coriander, fish mint (which tastes like it’s namesake, the former, not the latter )- whatever the combination, it makes for a fresh, vibrant bowl of food. Just add as many or as few from the basket of mixed herbs and vegetables which will be delivered with your num banh chok. We loved the num banh chok at Sophath which also does a brilliant chicken curry version- perfect for that second visit.
Eat at: Sophath, # 78 Street 07 Sangkat Chaktomok, 12207, Cambodia. Open 7:00am to 8:00pm.
3. Cambodian beef curry at 126 The Noodle House
Let’s just say at the outset that we’d return to Phnom Penh just to eat this beef curry. You’ll find it at a popular breakfast spot where you’ll see everyone slurping on kuy teav- a pork based rice noodle soup, often the breakfast of choice in Cambodia. Whilst the kuy teav here is tasty it’s the beef curry which you’ll yearn for long after you have left Phnom Penh.
The curry emerges from a giant pot- a thick dark gravy infused with a host of aromatics including ginger and garlic and spices like cinnamon, star anise and a hint of chilli. The curry is served with a crusty, pillowy baguette, perfect for ripping and dipping into the thick sauce. The beef collapses at the prod of a fork- you barely need teeth to eat this dish. Wash it down with an iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk as is the local way and call it a morning well spent.
Eat at: 126 The Noodle House, Phnom Penh. Open daily from 5:00am to 5:00pm (but get there for breakfast or you might miss out!)
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