Khmer food (a summary)

The foods of Thailand and Vietnam are famous; the foods of Cambodia and Malaysia much less so. I’m a huge fan of Malaysian food, and of course I love most Thai and Vietnamese dishes — but what about the cuisine of the Khmers of Cambodia?

Chicken Sour Soup - Cambodia

Chicken sour soup: Served with rice on the side. Tart and refreshing, full of fresh herbs, fresh pineapple chunks, and, in this case, green tomatoes. This was my last meal in Phnom Penh before I left.

I ate some very delicious dishes in Cambodia, including the unique sour soup. Very rarely was any meal as chili-hot as most Thai dishes, and most dishes did not include coconut milk. An exception was the amok (a word that’s not used to mean what it means in Bahasa, from which we derived the English word, which means to go crazy, most often in a murderous rage) — amok is both spicy and made with coconut milk.

Amok Fish - Cambodia

Amok fish: Sweet and hot, a fantastic medley of flavors, with mild white fish, served with rice on the side. This dish seems to be prepared differently in each place that serves it.

Of course, it does not help public relations for Cambodian food when people discover that crispy fried bugs and spiders are favorite local snacks. (No, I did not even think about sampling these.)

Cambodian snack foods

Fried insects: The evening street market beside the waterfront in Phnom Penh (see large).

One very common dish I did not photograph (I become forgetful when a beautiful plate of food is set in front of me — I just start eating and only later realize I should have taken a picture) is beef lok lak, which was really tasty every time I ate it. It’s a marinated, thin-sliced, lean beef, stir fried and served with a black pepper dipping sauce on the side. “English style” comes with a fried egg and French fries. The Khmer version comes with steamed white rice and maybe some salad.

Another ubiquitous dish is morning glory, a very nice sauteed green vegetable (no flowers on the plate), served with or without meat. It reminded me a bit of mustard greens.

The curries I ate were tasty but not at all hot-spicy. (Maybe the cooks toned them down for the Western people?) Our trip leader took us to places that had menus in English and options for Western food, so I’m not entirely sure that I had a lot of authentic Khmer food. I was served two completely bland renditions of fried rice — always a reliable taste treat in Malaysia — so I quit ordering it. Fried noodles were usually instant noodles — ugh! — so I avoided those as well. I did have one awesome bowl of pork noodle soup for breakfast one morning, when Kalina and I struck out on our own — and somewhere or another I ate some very good spicy soup with glass noodles.

For more information about Cambodian (Khmer) food, see the Phnomenon blog.

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