Nom banh chok is a quintessential Cambodian breakfast noodle dish beloved by locals that is essentially ‘Cambodia in a bowl’. It’s also the name of the lightly fermented rice noodles, made fresh daily by artisanal noodlemakers and sold at local markets, that are the central component of the dish.
Nom banh chok is Cambodia’s national dish and it’s absolutely delicious. There, I said it. Although I’m cognisant of the fact that I’ve proclaimed myriad times on this site and elsewhere that the national dish is amok trei or fish amok, the sumptuous steamed fish curry is so painstaking to prepare properly that it’s not something that’s consumed every day.
Nom banh chok, on the other hand (even more laborious to make) is eaten daily, traditionally for breakfast, but also as an afternoon snack. And it can be found everywhere – at street food stalls and local markets, sold from baskets by roving vendors, and served in restaurants, from traditional family eateries to contemporary Cambodian fine diners, where it’s elevated, deconstructed, reconstructed, and reinterpreted.
Ask Cambodians what their favourite dish is and I guarantee you that most will probably say nom banh chok. Often translated for English speakers as ‘Khmer noodles’, nom banh chok – also written as nom panchok, nom pachok, num banh chok, noum bahnchok, num panchok, and num pachok – is so adored by Cambodians and so central to Cambodia’s culinary culture that a Khmer Noodle Movement has sprouted.
Nom Banh Chok, The Fermented Rice Noodle Dish That Is Cambodia in a Bowl
When I’ve interviewed Cambodians over the years for my Cambodian culinary history research project and we’ve discussed how little their cuisine is known outside the country, especially compared to Vietnamese and Thai food, they inevitably end up wistfully confiding how they look forward to the day when foreigners know Cambodian food just as well as they know that of their neighbours.
When I ask Cambodians, especially those who have travelled or lived abroad, what would be the Cambodian dish that they wish would be as well recognised around the world as Vietnam’s pho or Thailand’s pad Thai, they almost always say, without hesitation, nom banh chok.
It was therefore no surprise to see images being shared across social media mid-2019 of Cambodian cooks stirring monumental pots of simmering ‘samlor Khmer’ (Khmer soup) and long tables of locals passing baskets of fragrant herbs and condiment caddies amongst their companions.
What brought so many nom banh chok lovers together across Cambodia was an announcement by Cambodia’s Prime Minister in 2019 that 9 June was to be observed throughout the kingdom as a national nom banh chok day of unity and solidarity for Cambodians. The idea was that people from all walks of life could come together to slurp bowls of Cambodia’s favourite noodles.
Cambodia’s response may have been the stimulus that the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts needed. A few months later they began the process to have nom banh chok inscribed by UNESCO on the World Intangible Heritage list.
What is Nom Banh Chok?
Nom banh chok refers to both the fresh lightly-fermented rice noodles produced daily by families of artisanal noodle makers in villages all over Cambodia for delivery to local markets, as well as the popular Cambodian dish composed of the rice noodles, doused in a light, often herbaceous, coconut milk-based fish curry broth, and garnished with an array of fragrant herbs, wild leaves and edible flowers.
The fresh rice noodles are a little thicker than vermicelli and have more flavour thanks to a light fermentation. They are delicious on their own or eaten with a dust of your favourite spice, a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes, or a dip into a dish of sesame seeds or chilli oil. If you visit a noodle maker they might offer you a coil of noodles to taste with ‘chicken powder’ (stock powder) or MSG.
The broth spooned over the nom banh chok (noodles) is called a ‘samlor’ in Khmer – which can be a confusing term for people new to the language, as a samlor can be a thin soup, a hearty stew, or even an earthy curry. It’s sometimes described by writers as a gravy, which can be even more confounding for people unaccustomed to the dish and the Asian use of ‘gravy’, giving the impression that the soup is made with meaty juices and fats. It’s not, although some broths are made with fish stock. Nor does it have the thick consistency of a gravy, unless it’s an especially hearty Nom Banh Chok Samlor Cari (see below).
Although there are an array of different types of broths, the typical nom banh chok samlor is made from a Khmer kroeung – a herb and spice paste pounded from fresh lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, garlic, and shallots, and perhaps other ingredients depending on the type of kroeung. (There are five types of kroeung, three of which are used for nom banh chok).
And then there are the condiments and garnish, which are an essential components of nom banh chok, which you can read about below.
Types of Nom Banh Chok
There are numerous types of nom banh chok, which can vary region to region, province to province, town to town, village to village, and even from cook to cook. Every nom banh chok cook or street vendor has their own recipe and some have stylistic flourishes, especially when it comes to presentation, that distinguish one nom banh chok cook from another.
If you want to see and sample a simple countryside-style of nom banh chok, venture out to Preah Dak (also called Pradak) on your way to Banteay Srei temple. If you want to be wowed by one of the most beautiful bowls of nom banh chok you will ever lay your eyes on – and I’m talking about the bowl pictured above – make a beeline for the Nom Pachok stall in Siem Reap. (Details for both below.)
Nom Banh Chok Samlor Proheu (note that if you’re Googling, you can also search for ‘proheur’, ‘broheu’, ‘prahar’, and ‘prahal’) is similar to Nom Banh Chok Siem Reap. Both are made with a yellow or green kroeung, pounded from lemongrass (the firm white base is used in the yellow kroeung, and the long leaves in the green kroeung), kaffir lime leaves, garlic, turmeric, and finger-root (a rhizome also called Chinese keys or krachai in Khmer), coconut milk, freshwater fish (typically snakehead fish) and prahok, Cambodia’s famous fermented fish.
The broth is a yellow or yellow-green colour and is usually thin, sometimes consommé-like if the recipe calls for a fish stock. Some recipes replace the prahok with fish sauce, but some argue it’s not a ‘Siem Reap’ nom banh chok if it doesn’t have prahok. Either way, you really need to add fragrant greens and condiments and combine everything to make this a special dish, and that’s okay, nom banh chok really is a dish that is the sum of its parts.
Nom Banh Chok Samlor Khmer tends to have a thicker and greener broth and can often be quite herbaceous and fibrous due to the use of lemongrass leaves in the green kroeung and pounded fish. I love the texture and this is my favourite nom banh chok. It’s the greenish colour that explains why some call it a green ‘curry’ despite the fact that the green paste does not always have chillies (recipes vary), which would normally be included in a ‘curry’ paste.
Nom Banh Chok Samlor Namya (also written as ‘nam ya’) comes with a Cambodian red curry broth based on a red kroeung, which does have chillies – large dried red chillies, which have been soaked and pounded. It’s made with fish and generally includes kapi and fish sauce.
Nom Banh Chok Samlor Cari (or Kary) is served with a Cambodian red curry that’s also made with a red kroeung with chillies, but is meat rather than fish-based. I’ve mostly eaten it with beef, which sometimes comes with the option of offal and blood cake, but I’ve spotted recipes that call for chicken. it can taste a bit like a Malaysian curry mee or Singaporean curry laksa. In fact, some of my tuk tuk drivers call it a Cambodian ‘laksa’.
Nom Banh Chok Kampot comes from the charming, riverside colonial town, off the coast of southern Cambodian. What distinguishes it from the other styles of nom banh chok is its use of peanuts, dried shrimp and Kampot fish sauce, which tastes different to the fish sauce from Siem Reap and Battambang, made from freshwater fish from the lake rather than fish from the sea. Some vendors add sliced fish cakes.
In its simplest form, this nom banh chok consists of little more than the noodles, which are laid on top of a layer of fresh cucumber, sprouts and herbs, and are then topped with ground peanuts, dried shrimp, coconut milk, and fish sauce, that is combined well.
How to Eat Nom Banh Chok
Regardless of what kind of nom banh chok you’re being served, you should find a basket, bowl or tray of greens on the stall, at the centre of the table, or the cook or a waiter will offer a fresh serve to you after you sit down or receive your bowl.
Expect to find foraged wild leaves and perfumed herbs (‘chi’ in Khmer), such as holy basil, Khmer basil, Thai basil, and lemon basil, sawtooth coriander, fish leaf, rice paddy herb, Vietnamese mint, and the bitter chi saing-hum leaf, called Cambodian mint by some; aromatic edible flowers including the lilac-coloured water hyacinth, lotus flower petals, ‘yellow sesbania’ (sesbania javanica), and hummingbird flowers or ‘white sesbania’ (sesbania grandiflora); crunchy vegetables, such as long beans, wing beans, and cucumbers; and all sorts of other roots, stems and buds, including finely sliced banana blossoms, water lily stems, bean sprouts, and sorrel sprouts.
You should also spot a caddy of condiments somewhere, that typically includes chilli relish or chilli oil, dry chilli flakes, salt, and sugar. Beside it you should also find an assortment of jars, containers and bottles of spicy chilli sauce, preserved soya beans, pickled green chillies, pickled shallots, and fried shallots, along with little dishes of lime quarters and fresh green and red birds-eye chillies.
Once you have your bowl of nom banh chok, which may already come with sliced banana blossoms and chopped cucumber that form a bed at the bottom of the dish or are placed on top, do what the locals do. Carefully select your greens, herbs and flowers from the basket and sprinkle them on top – or artfully arrange them for your social media snaps.
Next add your condiments, although I highly recommend tasting the broth before doing so. Don’t automatically do what the locals do, some of whom (if they’re young) will be adding tablespoons of sugar and lashings of chilli sauce. I often find it needs no more than a light sprinkle of dried chilli flakes to add a little kick.
Then use your two chopsticks, one in each hand, to combine all the ingredients together. While Cambodians eat most dishes with a fork and spoon, chopsticks are used for noodle dishes. Don’t worry if you’re not accustomed to chopsticks, Cambodians are the most relaxed eaters in Southeast Asia when it comes to customs and are very accepting of how foreigners to choose eat. They just want you to enjoy your food, so don’t get caught up on etiquette.
Where to Eat Nom Banh Chok in Siem Reap
The brainchild of Sony Cheab, a Cambodian who lived in Australia for seven years, and has a dream of taking nom banh chok to the world. Nom Pachok is responsible for serving up Siem Reap’s most beautiful bowls of the fermented noodles that burst with colour and sing with flavour. See the photo above for proof. Not only are these dishes presented as elegantly as any you would expect to find in Siem Reap’s most creative Cambodian restaurants, they taste incredibly delicious. Sony and his partner have based their recipes on those of their mothers and grandmothers but have also done extensive research to fine-tune their broths. Bonus: they don’t use MSG for those of you allergic to Asia’s favourite seasoning. (Note: most nom banh chok stalls at the markets and Preah Dak do use it these days.) This newish stall, located beside the post office and opposite Shinta Mani hotels, is also a fun place to hang out in the morning for a chat with Sony – or to have your future foretold, if Siem Reap resident palm reader and Bob Marley biographer Dennis Gillman happens to be there tucking into a bowl.
This community-minded café specialises in nom banh chok. A ‘kdeung’ is the traditional wooden apparatus that is used to pound the rice-flour dough to make the fresh noodles and there is one here for you to see inside, at the heart of a charming room decorated with reclaimed wood, pre-loved furniture and traditional baskets. Everything used is eco-friendly. There are biodegradable bags and take-away containers, the coffee cups are compostable, bamboo straws and cups, and they sell fresh organic produce harvested from their local community of organic farmers. The café is a partnership between Sophal Sea, a former tour guide and founder/director of an NGO, the Bamboo Shoot Foundation, and Sam Chan, a well-regarded expat chef from Malaysia, who has become known as ‘Sam Khmer Noodles’, such is the renown of these incredibly delicious bowls of nom banh chok, prepared with noodles delivered each morning from Preah Dak (see below). They also do good coffee and great fruit shakes. Don’t be surprised if Sophal or Sam sit down for a chat and tell you about their latest projects, whether it’s tree-planting, cleaning up the river, or promoting plastic-free living.
Siem Reap Markets
To sample the nom banh chok that most Cambodians slurp every day, slip into one of Siem Reap’s dozens of local markets scattered around the city. If you’re a first-time visitor we recommend you stick to the best two markets, Psar Chas in the centre of Siem Reap’s Old Market quarter, and Psar Leu, the big central market on National Route No 6, about 15 minutes by tuk tuk from the Old Market, which sprawls into the lanes and alleys of the surrounding neighbourhood. Inside historic Psar Chas, which dates to the French colonial era, you’ll see a couple of ladies selling nom banh chok on a corner slap-bang in the centre of the market, between the ‘wet’ market area and the fresh veggie section. In Psar Leu, we love a lady who has a nom banh chok stall in the main dimly lit market hall who has one of the richest and most complex laksa-like broths we’ve had in Cambodia. Do chef Mengly Mork’s morning market tour and he’ll take you here. I’ve also slurped a pretty decent nom banh chok at Psar Krom – washed down with an effervescent sugar palm juice – but the dimly lit market, which gets very muddy in monsoon, is not for everyone. See our guide to eating street food safely.
If you’re only on holidays in Siem Reap for a short time and are concerned about getting sick from grazing at markets and on street food, then your best bet is to sample the outstanding nom banh chok samlor Khmer at chef Luu Meng’s Malis, one of Siem Reap’s finest Cambodian restaurants. This is actually a terrific spot to not only try nom banh chok, but to also sample an array of Cambodian breakfast dishes, made with premium ingredients, as they have a whopping 18 Cambodian breakfast specialties on the menu. Try them all and you’ll get a great taste of the breadth and depth of Cambodian breakfasts. There are eight types of kuy teav (rice noodle soup in a clear pork broth), including a basic kuy teav with beef (kuy teav sach kor), pork on the bone (kuy teav ch’heung) and Mekong River fish balls (kuy teav prohet sach trei), along with pork and rice (bay sach chrouk ang), borbor (Cambodian congee or rice porridge) and lort cha (short noodles that are wok-fried). and they have three types) and more. Prices range from US$2.50-5 (plus tax) but ask about their breakfast ‘free flow’ promotion, which means you can essentially eat as much as you like for a set price.
If you’re venturing out to Banteay Srei temple, then that’s a good opportunity to try nom banh chok at the source. Ask your tuk tuk driver to stop at the village of Preah Dak (also called Pradak and Padak), 30 minutes from Siem Reap, which is famed for its sugar palm, basket weaving and nom banh chock. A handful of simple nom banh chok eateries line a short stretch of road just before a busy crossroads, which, if your driver hangs a left, will lead you to the pretty pink temple of Banteay Srei, the Citadel of Women, or, if he heads straight, will take you to the handsome temple of Banteay Samre, where you should find yourself quite alone. As for the nom banh chok restaurants, I am fond of one ran by a sweet, welcoming couple, which will be the first on your right as you approach the cluster of eateries from Siem Reap. Don’t worry if you arrive early one morning, particularly on a week-day, and it’s empty. One weekends, the big long tables fill with big Cambodian families and groups of friends. What you need to worry about is whether there are any samlors in those big pots! If there are, order one of each, and Cambodian iced coffees. If not, head across the road to a small but perpetually busy stall. Their selection of herbs and greens aren’t as great, but their broth is just as delicious. The nom banh chok is so cheap here, make sure you treat your driver and guide to a bowl each.
If you’re heading out to Banteay Srei temple, plan to stop at Devatas, little sister to Siem Reap’s Sugar Palm restaurant, owned by chef Kethana Dunnett, ‘the godmother of Cambodian cuisine’. Located close to the Landmine Museum, it’s a very relaxing spot to rest a while after a morning at the temple, with breezy thatched-roof dining kiosks set in a tropical overlooking the ancient dam of Bang Khnar. But the main reason to go is for the superb nom banh chok, made with fresh organic produce from Kethana’s farm, which is just behind the restaurant. If you want to follow breakfast with lunch, the menu includes Sugar Palm favourites such as the pomelo salad with shrimp and pork, smoky grilled eggplant with minced pork and fermented soya beans, and Kethana’s famous fish amok. Note that while prices are very reasonable (from US$4.50-$9), they are higher than your typical nom banh chok street food stall. You’re paying for premium ingredients, generous portions, good service, and a gorgeous setting. Oh, and there are hammocks in a cool sala if you need a post-meal snooze to prepare for the next temples. Opens at 10.30am-4pm.
Watch this space for links to our upcoming nom banh chok recipes and if you want to learn more about the origins and history of nom banh chok, I’ll be sharing my research findings with my patrons on my Patreon page.