With the enormous Tonlé Sap lake in the north, the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers running through the center, and the Gulf of Thailand at the southern coast, seafood is part of daily eating and always sparkling fresh. Often, it’s simply grilled or fried. These small squid were grilled on a tableside brazier, and like so many Cambodian dishes, this dish is all about the trimmings: sliced cucumber, Asian basil, and a combination of fish sauce, garlic, chili and lime juice. When you skewer a little of everything together, you get a delicious combination of flavors and textures: tender squid, cool cucumber crunch, snappy basil, and sweet-spicy sauce.
This fish curry is often called Cambodia’s national dish, and for good reason—its presentation is beautiful and it tastes even better. Fish amok gets its signature flavor from kroeung, an aromatic curry paste made with lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shallots, garlic, and a little chili. The kroeung is mixed with coconut milk, which turns a beautiful golden yellow. Mild white fish and shredded kaffir lime leaves are added to the curry, which is steamed in a banana-leaf cup. Every restaurant prepares fish amok slightly different—some are saucier and others becomes custardy as they steam.
This green vegetable grows profusely all over Cambodia in damp soil and watery patches near rice paddies. Sometimes farmers cultivate it, but more often people just find a patch and pick it to sell at the markets. Morning glory has hollow green stems, thin leaves, and a mild, grassy flavor that tastes similar to spinach. It appears in a variety of dishes, usually meaty soups like the one pictured here, and stir-fries with garlic, ginger or oyster sauce.
Bai Sach Chrouk (BBQ pork and rice)
One of Cambodia’s most popular breakfast dishes, and one that would be great all day if there was any bai sach chrouk left past 9 am. No two recipes are the same, but all feature pork marinated in garlic, soy, and coconut milk slowly grilled over charcoal, where it becomes smoky and caramelized. The pork is sliced thin, sprinkled with scallions and served over rice and fresh sliced cucumbers and green tomatoes, with a small bowl of gingery, lightly pickled cucumber, daikon, and green mango on the side. The best way to eat bai sach chrouk is to scoop a bite of pork, rice and pickle all together.
Kuy Teav (noodle soup)
This popular soup is made with clear, light, nourishing pork broth. People start eating kuy teav at breakfast, but you’ll find it all day. I heard it was traditionally served with thin rice noodles, but I found it just as often with the yellow egg noodles pictured here. The meat toppings vary: it can have slices of pork, beef, meatballs, or chunks of juicy poached chicken. The soup also has some greens, and it’s garnished with scallions and fried garlic. On the side, you get a small bowl with a mix of chili sauce and sweet hoisin sauce, plus lime halves. Spoon in the sauce, squeeze some limes, and dig in.
Sweet, sour, spicy, and salty: this addictive snack hits them all. Green, unripe fruit, including various types of mango, plus guava, ambarella, jujube, otaheite apple, tamarind, and more, are sliced and sprinkled with chili-and-salt spiked sugar. The fruit is juicy and crunchy, some bites have a hint of natural sweetness, and others are puckeringly sour. The sugar-chili-salt mixture is popular with all fruit—you’ll often receive a small bag of it when you buy sliced pineapple, papaya or sweet mango, but it’s best on unripe fruit.
Don’t be put off by noodles that look like they might crawl away when you’re not looking. These short, fat rice noodles are stir-fried with leafy greens, soy sauce and fish sauce. As the soft noodles cook, they pick up wok char and absorb the flavorful sauce. Just before the dish is finished in the wok, the cook adds a large handful of bean sprouts, which are the same length as the noodles and make for a crunchy complement. Lort cha is topped with a fried egg and squeezes of sweet chili sauce and spicy chili paste. In the best versions, the egg still has some runny yolk, coating the noodles as you eat.
Green Mango Salad
Cambodians love mangoes and eat them at every stage of ripeness, and the greenest ones become shredded salad. Similar to Thai green papaya salad, Cambodian green mango salad is more refreshing and citrusy, and less pungent and spicy, with that same winning combination of sweet, sour, savory, and crunchy. Shavings of green mango are mixed with shallots and Asian basil and mint, and vegetables including carrots, red and green peppers, and tomatoes. The dressing is made with shallots, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and just a tiny bit of bird’s eye chili. A small portion of green mango salad often turns up as a relish with grilled fish and meats.
Khmer Muslim Beef Curry
This is what your Cambodian-Jewish grandma might make for holidays. Chunks of beef are cooked until spoon-tender in a red curry made from ginger, coriander, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, onions, cardamom and palm sugar. Some versions include peanuts, which soften as they cook in the sauce. Khmer Muslim beef curry is served with baguette for dipping—or for making a delicious, and very sloppy, sandwich.
Khmer Noodles / Nom Banh Chok
This dish is technically called nom banh chok, but locals and visitors alike usually just call it Khmer noodles. It’s sold by women who walk around carrying the ingredients in baskets hanging from a pole balanced across their shoulders. When you order Khmer noodles, they’ll stop, unpack everything and fix your bowl to order. Thin rice noodles, which are stored in their basket in a beautiful, flower-like spiral, are combined with handfuls of raw vegetables, including shredded banana leaf, bean sprouts, diced cucumber, and long beans, plus fresh mint and basil. The whole bowl is topped with thin, lemongrass-heavy green fish curry. When everything in the bowl is mixed, it’s as much salad as slurpable noodles.
Khmer Iced Coffee
It’s important to stay cool in such a hot country, and Cambodians have figured out a winning method: Rich, dark, strong-brewed coffee poured over a full cup of ice with sweetened condensed milk. The drink is similar to Vietnamese iced coffee, but Cambodian coffee beans are roasted with a little fat, either butter or lard, which deepens the flavor. The intense coffee combined with the sweet milk tastes like chocolate to me. Khmer iced coffee lies at the intersection of morning pick-me-up and milkshake.
Bananas, Grilled and Fried
Bananas grow all over Cambodia and are available in an assortment of colors and sizes—red and green, standard yellow, large and small—and the baby yellow bananas are the star of the street-snack show. There are two ways you’ll find them prepared: Skewered and grilled over charcoal, or pounded thin, coated in batter speckled with black sesame seeds and fried. The grilled bananas make me think: Why don’t we eat grilled bananas all the time? The heat makes them soft and a little gooey, with caramelized spots on the outside. Fried bananas become melty from their swim in the hot oil, and the crunchy outside is just a little sweet. The only hazard is making sure you don’t burn your tongue as you nibble away.
Num Sang Khya L’peou (pumpkin custard)
Local pumpkins, which look more like kabocha squash than jack-o-lanterns, are scooped out and filled with a mixture of egg yolk, palm sugar, and coconut milk, then baked or steamed. Slices of pumpkin custard are served at room temperature with a scoop of shaved ice and coconut milk poured on top—yet another dish where all the elements combine to make something more exciting than the separate parts.