Our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap
Temples are at the top of every Siem Reap visitor’s to-do list and there are so many of the things that few travellers think of anything else. They are sublime — but so is the food. Don’t believe us? Then cast your eyes over our culinary guide to Siem Reap. Prepare to salivate.
The temples are magic — we’ve lived here for almost two years now and visited Siem Reap a few times before we moved here and scrambled loads of archaeological sites yet we’re still not ‘templed-out’. However, there’s so much more to the city, that you’re really missing out if exploring temples is all you do.
There’s eating, for instance, and Cambodian food is wonderful. However, it’s also one of Asia’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisines. There’s a lot of misinformation out there (chicken amok is not the national dish and a good beef lok lak should not be made with ketchup) and many restaurant reviews are misguided. We’ve been doing in-depth research on Cambodian cuisine as we’ve been eating our way around the country for a cookbook project. You can expect to hear more about that soon but in the meantime, here’s our culinary guide to Siem Reap:
Siem Reap Markets
Hit the local markets around 7-8am to get an insight into everyday life. Siem Reap’s best market is Phsar Chas or Old Market, in the historic centre of town. This is where you’ll buy your souvenirs and as you stroll around you’ll undoubtedly be subjected to annoying shouts of “Buy something! No charge — just looking!” But it’s not just a tourist market. Locals shop here too and in the early morning, vendors spread out their produce in the aisle between the shoe shops, from freshly picked fruit and vegetables to just-caught seafood from the nearby Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. It’s all so good that Siem Reap’s best chefs shop here. You may also bump into us picking up some seafood or fruit and veg. It’s so inexpensive that if you’re a chef or foodie you’ll be tempted to swap your hotel for an apartment so you can start cooking.
Phsar Leu, Siem Reap’s biggest market, is on National Route No 6 and it’s even more local and more fascinating. But not everyone can handle the, ahem, aromas. If you’re still half-asleep when you arrive, the prahok (Cambodia’s famous fermented fish) and fresh meats will wake up your olfactory system. It’s a great spot to buy kitchenware and household goods if you are settling in. On the opposite side of the road toward the centre of Siem Reap, dimly-lit Phsar Samaki is even grittier and is worth a look if you’re a market enthusiast.
Another bustling little market is Phsar Polanka on the quieter upper riverside, which has a few good food stalls inside, while the mobile carts outside are the place to buy glistening, roasted char sieu duck and pork, and num pang, the Cambodian version of the Vietnamese banh mi, a baguette stuffed with pork, salad, pickles, mayo, maybe some fish, and pâté, when it’s called num pang pâté.
Breakfast in Siem Reap
For a typical Cambodian breakfast hit the food stalls at the centre of Phsar Chas, slap bang in the middle between the meat/seafood and fruit and veg sections, and at Phsar Leu, at the back of the market in the morning and during the day and at the front come late afternoon and early evening. Most of the cooks sell just one or two (or at most, three) local specialties and because the food is mainly made for vendors, it’s authentic. At Phsar Chas, the two most popular stalls specialize in quintessential dishes such as bai sach chrouk (sweet, sticky grilled pork, slowly barbecued over charcoal, sliced up, and spread over a generous mound of white rice, with pickled cucumber and carrot, and chilli sauce on the side), the popular Cambodian pork noodle broth, kuy teav (which you can have with thin slivers of pork or with the addition of offal), as well as congee or babor (also borbor or borbo). Expect to pay around 5,000r or US$1.25 per dish. There are also fresh and fried spring rolls, fried noodles, and, generally not until later in the day, desserts. The stalls at Phsar Chas are more hygienic than those at Phsar Leu.
Cooking Classes in Siem Reap
A number of restaurants and hotels offer cooking classes in Siem Reap, from the more exclusive cooking lessons at five-star hotels such as Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and Anantara Angkor Resort, which are outstanding but expensive, to the more accessible, affordable and fun Cooks in Tuk Tuks experience offered by the River Garden hotel. All are conducted by professional chefs and offer a pre-class trip to a market to introduce participants to Cambodian ingredients and produce before returning to the hotel to get stuck into prep, cook the dishes, and enjoy them over lunch. When we tested these out, we found the Raffles class to be the most interactive, the Anantara more demo-style, and Cooks in Tuk Tuks somewhere in between, combining both hands-on prep and cooking with presentations of different techniques. The Raffles and Anantara experiences are private, so if you’re eager to meet fellow foodies you will prefer Cooks in Tuk Tuks. All the dishes taught are authentic renditions of Cambodian classics, such as fish amok and beef lok lak.
Cambodian-Kiwi chef Kethana Dunnett, who owns Sugar Palm restaurant, also offers a rather special Cooking with Kethana experience at her splendid Khmer timber home, set amongst the rice fields, booked through Backyard Travel or Exotissimo, that can be as participatory or as relaxed as you like. We also did some basic Cambodian country-style cooking with a lovely local on a mat on the ground as part of Beyond Unique Escapes Day in the Life of a Village tour. There are many more cooking classes offered by restaurants around town but not all teach authentic dishes. Stay clear of anywhere that has beef amok on the schedule! More on Siem Reap cooking classes soon.
Desserts in Siem Reap
Combining myriad textures, from silky glutinous surfaces and crunchy shaved ice to smooth medicinal jellies and creamy coconut milk, and flavours that are exotic to foreign palates, from yellow bean to durian, Khmer desserts are an acquired taste for many visitors. Sweets are often eaten as a snack during the day, especially in the afternoon, when you’ll find elderly ladies selling desserts that they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning making at markets such as Phsar Chas (Old Market) and Phsar Polanka (Upper West River Road). Look out for a little old lady at Polanka Market selling one of my favourite desserts, Num plai ai, glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with palm sugar syrup and rolled in fresh grated coconut and sprinkled with sesame seeds (2,000R or US$0.50c per serve of about ten balls). Pop them in whole so that they burst in your mouth. Cambodian women jokingly call this glutinous sphere-like dessert genre (of which there are a handful of varieties) ‘killing husband’ because of the chance of the balls becoming trapped in the throats of drunk spouses. If you’re concerned about hygiene, try Kaya, a lovely café opposite Old Market that specialises in Khmer desserts, drinks and shakes made from Cambodian fruits, herbs and spices. Desserts are made fresh daily with just a few on the menu, so you can keep returning to try a different one each day.
Street Food in Siem Reap
Street food is eaten throughout the day, but mostly early in the morning (soups, noodle dishes, and pork and rice) and in the late afternoon (fresh spring rolls, buns, corn on the cob, prawn fritters, chive cakes, etc) and early evening (fried noodles, BBQ sausages and skewers, dried squid etc). There are street food streets and corners, permanent food stalls that appear at particular times, and mobile carts that you’ll see pushed or biked around Siem Reap. See this post on Footpath Feasting: Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap.
But you do need to be careful where you eat. It is true that poor water quality, low hygiene standards, lack of education, and the prevalence of communicable diseases, make it more risky to eat street food in Siem Reap than, say, in Hanoi or Bangkok, so for the risk-adverse travellers consider doing a street food tour for your first outing. The best (and first) street food tour in town is offered by Deb and her Cambodian cooks at River Garden hotel and it’s fantastic. (I’ll be writing more on this in another post). Also see our Footpath Feasting post on How to Eat Safely in Cambodia.
For the adventurous, hit one of a handful of smoke-filled corrugated-iron roofed shacks and fancier open-sided eateries on Wat Damnak Street (one block from the pagoda) in the late afternoon and early evening, for one of Siem Reap’s most popular street food snacks, sach ko ang (1000r/US$0.25 per skewer), beef skewers marinated in palm sugar, soy and kreung (a paste of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, garlic), and then barbecued over coals on a traditional clay grill. Locals love them with pickled radish and cucumber and chilli sauce on a buttered baguette. There’s another much-loved local barbecue skewer stall on a quiet lane perpendicular to River Road on the upper reaches of the river that sets up around 5pm; arrive earlier and you’ll only see tables and chairs stacked up.
More stalls start up about the same time on the streets around Phsar Chas, from Street 11 running by Pub Street up to Sivatha Boulevard, and in the other direction toward Pokamber Avenue, where they also dot the riverside. Here, you’ll find everything from fresh coconut water, sugar cane juice, iced coffee, and fresh sliced fruit and fruit shakes, to crunchy insects, num pang (Cambodian banh mi; see above) and the ubiquitous ‘pancakes’, which are, in fact, thin French-style crêpes and are a legacy of the colonial days when Cambodia was a French protectorate (1863-1954). A backpacker favourite, they’re served with banana, and, ahem, chocolate sauce or Nutella. You’ll also find vendors selling pickled fruits served with chilli, salt and sugar (a favourite with local women and mostly sold by women bearing baskets) and nom pao, the Cambodian version of Chinese steamed buns, stuffed with pork, boiled eggs, and sometimes the sweet Siem Reap-style Chinese sausage (sold by men usually, in mobile carts boasting steamers and glass display cabinets).
Cambodian Restaurants in Siem Reap
There are countless restaurants in Siem Reap serving Khmer or Cambodian cuisine, but sadly most of them are offering up anodyne versions of local dishes that leave out the sour (chou), bitter (l’evign) and pungent (chat) notes that Khmers love so much.
If you’re keen to experience authentic Cambodian flavours, book a table at Cuisine Wat Damnak, where you can order one of two tasting menus for a wonderful introduction to Cambodian cuisine. This is not only Siem Reap’s finest restaurant, it is the Best Restaurant in Cambodia, placing at #50 on the 2015 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Here, long-time resident Chef Joannès Rivière creates refined renditions of Cambodian dishes, some prepared with French technique. The chef changes the menu weekly, based on availability of ingredients that he finds at the markets. Hope that the Mekong langoustine in rice paddy crab curry is on. Based on a traditional paddy crab brain soup, here it’s prepared without the shells used in the countryside (Cambodians love texture, especially anything that crunches), and with the addition of fresh coconut milk and sweet, meaty Mekong langoustines. The restaurant is set in an elegant, renovated Khmer timber house; book upstairs for atmosphere, downstairs for air-conditioning, and the terrace in winter.
For traditional home-style Cambodian food, also served in an atmospheric Khmer style wooden house with wide verandas, Sugar Palm is your best bet. Everything on the menu is delicious, although you can expect the pungent prahok to be tamed down a tad when used, as it is at most restaurants. The Cambodian-Kiwi owner Chef Kethana is the go-to person when celebrity chefs are in the country doing television cooking shows, and she knows her stuff. Sugar Palm serves up a superlative version of Cambodia’s national dish, amok trei or fish amok. Snakehead fish from the Tonlé Sap is combined with fresh coconut cream and a kreung of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, and chili, and here is served in a coconut shell (it’s usually served in banana leaf; never in a ceramic bowl).
On the riverside, stylish Chanrey Tree, which opened late last year, offers some delicious traditional Cambodian dishes that you won’t see on other menus, including some of the owner’s mother’s recipes. Order the crispy sticky rice with natang sauce, made with minced pork, shrimp, coconut milk, and peanuts, served with fried tempura-like frangipanis and vegetables; the char kroeung, made with frog’s legs, chicken or beef that is stir-fried with a kroeung paste of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, lime, garlic, and spring onion; and free-range Khmer chicken, roasted with honey, rice brandy, young jack fruit and lemongrass, and served with a prahok dip and fresh vegetable crudites.
For creative interpretations of Cambodian cuisine, authentic dishes presented in a contemporary style, including Khmer tapas (pictured above), as well as dishes featuring imaginative pan-Asian flavour combinations, try Marum, a hospitality-training restaurant ran by Friends International, set in a timber house with art on the walls and alfresco seating in the leafy gardens. I love the red tree ant fritters, barbecued pork ribs with apple and daikon salad, and the roast duck and pumpkin croquettes with citrus and hoisin sauce.
If you want authentic, quality Cambodian/Khmer cuisine, avoid the tourist restaurants in the Old Market area, especially on and around Pub Street, which offer lame renditions of Khmer dishes and watered-down curries, closer in flavour to Thai food, which most visitors are more familiar with. If you’re here over a holiday when the best restaurants are closed (such as Khmer New Year), you’re not fussy, you’re not a fan of Cambodia’s pungent, sour and bitter notes, or you favour the buzzy Old Market/Pub Street atmosphere over good food, then by all means try them. Our picks would be Amok (on The Passage) for lane-side action, fun staff and Fawlty Towers-like service, and Old House (opposite Siem Reap Provincial Hospital), which has great value set menus of decent Thai-Cambodian food.
If you’re heading to Cambodia, consider Savour Siem Reap, the bespoke culinary travel experience I offer. I include many of these activities and restaurants on my itineraries, along with delicious secrets and mouthwatering experiences that I don’t write about. Also see Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap from our Footpath Feasting series on street food around the globe.
TOUR UPDATE: When we announced EAT LEARN LOVE CAMBODIA, the culinary travel writing and photography tour we’re hosting with Backyard Travel, starting in Siem Reap from 22 May for 8 nights, we promised surprises. The first: in addition to a sublime dinner at the Best Restaurant in Cambodia, Cuisine Wat Damnak, we will visit the restaurant during the day to spend time with Chef Joannès Rivière. You’ll interview Chef Jo, go behind the scenes to see the sleek kitchen and observe the meticulous work that goes into prepping for a night, and learn how to photograph his food as a professional would, using lights and reflectors. No amateurish iPhone shots during dinner for our group! When we return to dine, you’ll get to slip out back to see the chef at the pass and the kitchen brigade busy at work during service. There are still places left, but this is a small group tour, so do book soon. More info here.