Cambodian Food – Cooking with Fire, Fermentation, Foraging, and Edible Flowers
Cambodian food, Southeast Asia’s oldest cuisine, has been on trend since the start, cooking with fire, making use of edible flowers, foraging, and fermenting, long before they became fashionable. It’s time for Cambodian cuisine to get more attention.
I fell in love with Cambodian food on our first trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia‘s capital, six years ago. It wasn’t any singular experience, rather a culmination of myriad culinary experiences: tasting a trio of pungent dips made from Cambodia’s beloved fermented fish paste, prahok, at Romdeng restaurant; savouring a luxuriant saraman curry, redolent of dry Indian spices at Malis restaurant; and taking our time to relish a rich, complex amok trei (steamed fish curry) at Sugar Palm.
Then there were the markets and street food in Siem Reap and Battambang, where the best Cambodian breakfasts could be had: big bowls of aromatic kuy teav soup, Cambodia’s pho; cold fermented rice noodles in a lemongrass-heavy kroeung-based curry, sprinkled with shredded banana flower and fragrant herbs, called nom banh chok; and smoky slices of succulent barbecue pork on rice, the aromas of which waft down every street and lane where they’re grilled right by the roadside each morning.
As we’ve been researching our Cambodian cookbook over the last few years, discovering new dishes and ingredients every day, I’ve wondered when Cambodian food would get its time in the spotlight, when it might become the next ‘it’ cuisine. Cambodian cuisine certainly has what it takes to be the next big thing. Cambodians have been cooking with fire, making use of edible flowers, foraging, fermenting, and sharing plates long before any of those things were fashionable. I think it’s time and here’s why…
Cambodian Food – From Foraging and Fermentation to Cooking with Fire and Edible Flowers
Cambodian food is one of the world’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisines, about which countless myths exist (no, it’s not “mild Thai”). Often ignored in Asian cookbooks, it’s one of Southeast Asia’s most influential cuisines, with many dishes featuring in the gastronomies of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos having provenance in the lands of Cambodia’s Khmer people – much of which is now part of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
While there are many similarities between the cuisines of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos – a love of aromatic spices, fresh fragrant greens, soups, noodles and spring rolls, smoky barbecues and stir-fries, flavour-packed curries, tropical fruits and sweets – there are also differences that distinguish it and a long rich history that makes it unique.
Flexible menus that enable diners to choose an assortment of sharing plates for the table has been one of the most significant restaurant trends of recent years. For some, this more casual, more convivial style of eating is to blame for the demise of fine dining with its pressed tablecloths and structured progression of dishes. Yet the concept of sharing plates in a manner Asians call ‘family style’ eating has always existed in the region, if in a more primitive fashion a millennium ago and pared back in poorer households these days. In Southeast Asia, the main family meal consists of a variety of dishes to be shared by the family – rice at the centre, along with a soup, fresh greens, salad or stir-fried vegetables, something barbecued or grilled dish, perhaps a curry or stew. Street food snacks and one-bowl meals of soup, noodles or rice porridge are for when people are on the go, eating alone or in between meals, but at home or out, Cambodian food is always served as sharing plates eaten family-style.
Cooking with Fire
Cooking with fire is another trend that has travelled the globe in recent years, but the hearth was at the centre of the home for pre-historic Cambodian societies – literally. Evidence from archaeological digs at various Cambodian sites suggests an advanced civilization, dating from the first millennium BC to third century AD. They cultivated rice, reared domestic animals, hunted, and lived in spacious, well-ventilated, thatched houses on stilts. At the centre of these residences were two long, low, plank ‘beds’ (‘rean’ in Khmer) – similar to those used by Cambodians today – upon which they neatly laid glazed earthenware jars, cooking pots, utensils, and baskets. In between, at the centre of the home, was the hearth, constructed from three stones upon which the cooking pots were placed over an open fire. Fast-forward to twelfth-century Bayon temple at Angkor, where bas-reliefs on the stone walls depict scenes from everyday life. We see Khmer people barbecuing fish and fanning smoke over clay braziers that look no different to those they use in their kitchens and on the streets today. Grilled meats cooked over burning wood and smouldering coals remain massively popular, served at roadside stalls and BBQ restaurants, where Cambodians feast on everything from charred quail to stuffed frogs. Look for the plumes of smoke!
The Khmer people have been hunting and cooking with wild game long before the New Nordic chefs made it fashionable again and chef Magnus Nilsson established a hunting estate on the grounds of his Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Those early Mon-Khmer peoples hunted everything from wild boar to deer, with bows and arrows, spears and slingshots, just like those that the indigenous tribesmen from the highlands of Eastern Cambodia still use today. In those vivid carvings on the walls of Bayon temple, scenes depict a hunter wearing an animal head as camouflage, a stag appearing to hide within a forest, and two people cooking a boar on a spit over fire. In the rustic eateries in the countryside near Kulen Mountain (home to the so-called ‘lost city of Mahendraparvata) and the ruins of Koh Ker, stir-fried venison is popular, while you’ll see crocodile on the menu at Cambodian BBQ joints in Siem Reap.
Cambodians have been fermenting forever – everything from fruit and vegetables (from cucumber to paw paw) to seafood and fish, most famously in the form of the malodorous fermented fish paste, prahok, the most quintessential Cambodian food. When asked by foreigners to describe it, locals call it “Cambodian cheese”. Cambodia was once part of French Indochina, so they might have their coloniser’s mouldy blue Roquefort in mind. Though prahok tastes and smells much more fishy than cheesy. Made as it has been since ancient times, from small mud fish called ‘riel’ from the Tonle Sap or Great Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, the finest prahok is produced in Battambang and Siem Reap. Roughly pounded, salted and pressed into large vats, prahok is fermented from any number of months up to a year. It can be diluted and used as a seasoning in curries, soups and dips such as prahok k’tis (with minced pork, coconut milk and pea eggplants); wrapped in banana leaf and grilled and eaten with cabbage leaves or cucumber, or, during lean times, eaten alone with rice. Its intense flavour aside, prahok is beloved by Cambodians as the protein-rich ingredient has sustained them through the toughest of periods, quite literally keeping them alive.
Cambodian food is rooted (sorry) in foraged herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers. Before Aussie chef Ben Shewry was foraging on the beaches and between the railway tracks of Melbourne, Cambodians were foraging for naturally growing greens in the forests, around the villages and in their own yards. And foraging remains as much a part of everyday life for rural Cambodians today – from farmers around Siem Reap to the indigenous tribes of Ratanakiri – as it was for its pre-historic peoples and the citizens of earlier empires, from Funan, Chenla and Angkor. There’s a mind-boggling array of foraged greens, and while some can also be found in neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, there are so many more that are unique to Cambodia that are used in cooking everything, from omelettes to stir-fries and soups.
While diners have come to expect pretty flowers to appear on artfully presented plates in the world’s finest restaurants, foodie travellers to Cambodia are often surprised to see edible flowers in the markets and strewn across noodle bowls. Yet research attests that they’ve long been used in Cambodia and many are native to the country. When Cambodians forage for wild greens they’re also looking for edible flowers, cultivated in home gardens as well. The most ubiquitous edible flowers include those from the Sesbania family, especially Sesbania grandiflora (phka angkea dey in Khmer, which has a white flower that when closed looks like an elephant’s tusk, and Sesbania bispinosa, a cheerful yellow flower. The flower, vegetable-fruit, leaf, stem, and bark are used, with the dried leaves being made into tea and the pods, which look like string beans also being eaten. Edible flowers in Cambodia are used both raw and cooked, in everything from salads and soups to curries and desserts. Young shoots, pods, seeds, and leaves are also eaten. My favourite edible flowers in Cambodian food include white frangipanis that are deep-fried like tempura. Try them at Chanrey Tree in Siem Reap and Maisons Wat Kor in Battambang.
Drying and Smoking
On weekends and during Cambodian holidays a few shops on the perimetre of Siem Reap’s colonial-era Old Market see a constant stream of big fancy vehicles from Phnom Penh stopping by to load their boots with edible souvenirs. These thriving businesses specialise in dried salted fish (trei ngiet in Khmer) and smoked fish (trei chhae), smoked squid, dried shrimps of assorted grades, along with beef and buffalo jerky, and other dried and smoked delicacies. You can also find prahok and array of spicy fermented relishes. All of these products come from the ‘floating’ villages on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). Ask a local what their favourite Cambodian food is and many will say the smoked fish that are pierced together with a bamboo stick in a neat row of half a dozen or so whole fish. You can see these looking exactly as they do now in the vivid bas-reliefs on the walls of twelfth-century Bayon temple. The fish are used dry in salads and soups, reconstituted and eaten with rice, or, along with the dried squid, barbecued and eaten as a beer snack.
Cottage industries are alive and well in Cambodia, where 80% of the population lives in rural areas. When they’re not farming Cambodians are handcrafting culinary products on a small scale from their humble home workshops using the same methods and, in many cases, rustic ‘technology’ that their ancestors have for a millennium or two. On our culinary tours and food and travel writing retreats I take my participants on tuk tuk trundles through the countryside and villages to visit Cambodian homes to observe makers of rice noodles, rice paper, rice spirits, prahok, palm sugar, palm wine, and so on, as well as baskets, fishing nets, rattan furniture, grass mats, and more. Unlike neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, which are more developed, there is currently very little mechanised production of these sorts of products in Cambodia, so come and see these living traditions now.
Researchers reckon Cambodians have long been organic farmers, using traditional practices for centuries now labelled as biodynamic. They didn’t start using synthetic pesticides until the late 1960s, twenty years after the developed world. Even then it wasn’t on the scale of modernised countries due to Cambodia’s underdevelopment (bad roads, poor communications) and poverty; most simply couldn’t afford to buy them. Sadly, when introduced by travelling salesmen pesticides were often illegal, out of date, highly toxic, and applied in dangerous doses due to Thai and Vietnamese instructions. The good news: the last decade has seen a return to traditional methods and a flourishing organic farming movement, thanks to NGOs and passionate individuals. There are organic farmer’s markets, shops such as Siem Reap Food Co-op, farms like Happy + Co Farm offering a delivery service that takes organic produce straight to people’s doors, and restaurants and cafés serving farm-to-table Cambodian food.
Food writers will often describe the ingredients that home-cooks should stock up on for their ‘Asian pantry’. The irony is that historically there’s been no such thing as a pantry in Southeast Asia, Cambodia included. Most local women still shop at the market once or twice a day, for reasons of culture and necessity. It’s a chance to socialise and perhaps share some food with friends. The traditional Cambodian kitchens are often in an open area beneath the house, a lean-to or hut adjoining the home, or might just consist of a low wooden table that serves as an area for food preparation, relaxing, and sleeping at night. Most kitchens lack refrigeration and room for storage, so locals only buy enough ingredients to use that day. Poverty also dictates the need to be frugal. Cambodian food is made to last for several meals.
There’s no denying that Cambodia now has a plastic problem, with tourism largely to blame for the generation of tens of millions of plastic bottles alone every year. Fortunately, initiatives like #refillnotlandfill and organisations such as Plastic Free Cambodia are making impressive in-roads in improving what is potentially a disastrous situation. By contrast, Cambodians have long been eco-friendly, using clay braziers, earthenware pots, and utensils made from coconut wood. Cambodian food at local markets has traditionally been sold wrapped in banana leaves and lotus leaves, tied up with strips of leaves and stalk and roots, while Cambodian women have carried their produce and purchases in baskets made from natural materials. It’s only in recent years that plastic bags have been introduced, but their use is diminishing as quickly as it arrives, thanks to education, a government tax, supermarket fees, and talk of an outright ban.
In recent years, entomologists have been promoting insects as the food of the future, arguing that our protein needs can be met without the need for large tracts of land or the costs of greenhouse gases that result from intense livestock farming – an ecologically sound alternative to meat on an increasingly hungry planet. Once again, Cambodia is ahead of the game. Insects have long been a Cambodian food favourite. While locals might have eaten the creepy crawlies to save their lives during the Pol Pot years – along with rats and geckos – now, they happily munch away on an array of crispy critters. Edible insects include crickets, grasshoppers, water beetles, and cicadas (all tested and all delicious, especially when wok-fried in chilli and lemongrass), as well as cockroaches, tarantulas and scorpions (none of which I just can’t bring myself to try). Try them from local markets, street-side stalls and roving vendors – not from Pub Street, Siem Reap, where the old leftover insects go to entertain the tourists.
A Frenchman, Chef Joannès Rivière, may have put Cambodian cuisine on the world map when his Siem Reap fine diner Cuisine Wat Damnak became the first Cambodian restaurant to land on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants at #50 in 2015, rising up the 2016 list to #43, however, Chef Luu Meng, Cambodia’s best known celebrity chef has also been winning awards across Asia for his refined Cambodian food at his Malis restaurants in Temple Town and the capital. The chefs to watch, however, are a handful of younger cooks who are serving beautiful modern and contemporary Cambodian cuisine at their Siem Reap restaurants, including Chef Pola at Mie Café, Chef Sothea at Mahob Khmer, and the Himsan Twins – the first women chefs to steal some of the spotlight of the guys – at Embassy. There’s also a loose collective of young Cambodian chefs experimenting with street food, including Chef Mengly, formerly of Spoons, who has just opened Pou Restaurant and Bar. Click through for more on those chefs in our guide to the best Cambodian restaurants in Siem Reap.
We Want Your Cambodian Restaurant Tips
Is there a Cambodian food scene in your city? If there’s no ‘scene’, do you at least have a great Cambodian restaurant that you know and love? We want to raise the profile of Cambodian cuisine around the world. We are serious when we say that we want Cambodian food to be the next ‘it’ cuisine.
Let us know about your favourite Cambodian restaurant in the comments below. Share the restaurant’s name and website (or address and phone number if there isn’t a site) and tell us in a sentence why you love it. We’re going to compile a separate guide to the world’s best Cambodian restaurants and we’ll include your mini one-sentence review – and a link if you have a website or blog.
Pictured above: a spread of delicious Cambodian dishes at Sugar Palm, one of Siem Reap’s oldest and best Cambodian restaurants which, incidentally, has just re-opened this week in a wonderful new light-filled space on Street 27 in Siem Reap.