Cambodian cuisine, like most countries in southeast Asia, is a conglomerate of influences from the surrounding neighbors and evidence of its history of foreign occupation. Influences from China, India and France are evident, along with borrowed methods and dishes from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. As a result of the French occupation, baguettes and a love for bread have been incorporated into the daily palate. Baguettes are often served for breakfast or as a snack along with pate, sardines, or egg. Chinese influence can be seen in many noodle dishes, and curries reflect an influence from India.
Very few ingredients or dishes are distinctly Cambodian, save for a few methods such as using preserved lemons to enhance the sourness of a dish. Meals here are typically comprised of 3-4 dishes that incorporate a variety of flavors from herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, and other garnishes and condiments. Each dish usually plays on a contrast with the others, with some being sweet, salty, bitter or sour.
The staple food is, of course, rice. Cambodia ranks 2nd in the world for largest amounts of wetlands in Asia, which they use to cultivate rice. Various kinds of rice are used including malis, wild, brown and sticky rice often used in desserts. Water and freshwater fish are also key components in most meals, given vast amounts of fresh water running through the Mekong in particular. Due to this, dipping sauces and curries also tend to be quite watery.
Curry paste and soup bases are often made from a blend of spices. Common spices are cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, cilantro, and lime. Black Pepper is used to add spice or kick to a dish. Khmer red curry is a special curry dish often prepared for special occasions.
Prahok is a commonly used condiment. This fermented fish paste is an ‘acquired taste’ for westerners, adding a salty tang in a dish that distinguishes Khmer cuisine from that of its neighbors. Tamarind is commonly used as a soup base, adding a slightly sour kick.
Common vegetables used include winter melon, squash, Iuffa, spinach, cabbage, bamboo shoots, ginger, snow peas and bok choy. Popular fruits are the jan fruit, kuy fruit, romduol, pineapple, star apple, rose apple, palmyra fruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, and mango.
Most dishes do contain some sort of meat or protein with freshwater fish, pork, and chicken being the most common. Cambodians are also known for their adventurous culinary spirit and a variety of insects may also be fried up and served by street vendors. The most palatable to the Western tongue are fried red tree ants or grilled squid.
A few other distinctly Cambodian dishes are:
Bai Sach Chrouk – Pork and Rice. Served in the morning on street corners.
Fish Amok – Fish mousse with coconut milk and a lemongrass curry paste.
Nom Banh Chok – Khmer noodles. Typical breakfast of rice noodles in fish based green curry.
Cha Houy Teuk – Gelatin dessert of coconut cream made from agar agar. Served in bowl with shaved ice.