Discovering a country’s gastronomy is an unforgettable experience that immerses you in its culture and culinary tradition. Cambodian cuisine is no exception, offering a variety of flavours and dishes to delight every palate.
If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, be sure to try Khmer cuisine, which is a fusion of flavours and culinary techniques from Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and French traditions. Let’s discover together the culinary world of Cambodia and the best Cambodian dishes not to be missed!
An overview of Cambodian cuisine
Cambodian cuisine is a unique combination of the country’s culture, geography, climate and history. Thanks to a wealth of waterways such as the Mekong River and its tributaries, as well as a long coastline on the Gulf of Thailand, freshwater fish and seafood are particularly popular in soups, curries, stir-fries and salads.
Another speciality of Khmer cuisine is prahok, a fermented paste made from a small fish called trey riel, which is grey or brown in colour, with a strong smell and intense flavour. Used as a condiment or as the main ingredient in a variety of Khmer dishes, it accounts for a large proportion of the protein in the Khmer diet. Kroeung is another staple of many Cambodian dishes, a distinctive spice paste made from lemongrass, combava and galanga.
Although beef, pork, chicken, duck and other poultry are widely available, they are more expensive than fish dishes. For the culinarily adventurous, locusts, fried tarantulas, cooked scorpions and grilled snakes are also less common sources of protein.
Vegetables are also very popular with Cambodians and are served crunchy and fresh, or in curries, soups and stews. What’s more, Cambodian rice, considered the country’s white treasure, is famous for its delicious taste and aroma. Cambodian “Pkar Rumduol” rice was crowned the best rice in the world at The Rice Trade’s World Rice Conference in Thailand in 2022, for the fifth time.
Cambodian dishes are often accompanied by local beer or iced tea. Local restaurants and street markets offer a variety of Cambodian dishes at affordable prices for tourists and locals alike.
15 best dishes in Cambodia
1. Amok (Cambodian fish curry)
Amok is a traditional dish in Cambodian cuisine and is considered a national dish. It is a puffed curry of steamed fish or chicken with coconut milk and spices, usually served in a banana leaf.
The preparation of Amok begins with the creation of a curry paste called kroeung, which is traditionally used as the basis for many recipes in Cambodian cuisine. This paste is then mixed with coconut milk to create a thick, creamy sauce. The fish, usually a white-fleshed type such as cod, hake or whiting, is then steamed with this sauce along with spices and vegetables such as lemongrass, galanga, kaffir lime leaves, Thai shallots, turmeric and prawn paste to add colour and unique flavour.
This dish is often served with white rice, which absorbs the creamy sauce and rich flavours of the dish. The banana leaf used to serve the dish adds a unique flavour and distinctive aroma to the preparation.
2. Beef Lok Lak
Lok lak is a popular dish in Cambodian cuisine, consisting of stir-fried beef served with rice and a spicy green pepper sauce. To prepare this dish, the beef is cut into small pieces and sautéed in a hot pan with garlic, onions, black pepper and vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
The sauce that accompanies Lok lak is a mixture of green pepper, lime juice, soy sauce and sugar, and is spiced up with onions and herbs to add a fresh, aromatic flavour. This dish is often served with rice, which absorbs the spicy sauce and adds a pleasant texture.
Lok lak is easy to prepare and delicious, making it a popular choice in Cambodian restaurants, street markets and food stalls. It is particularly popular with meat lovers and those who enjoy spicy dishes.
3. Kdam Chaa (Pepper-fried crab)
Kdam chaa is a popular culinary speciality in Cambodia’s coastal towns, particularly in Kep and Kampot, where blue crabs and Kampot pepper, considered to be one of the best in the world, are famous.
To prepare this dish, the blue crabs are cut into pieces and sautéed with garlic, green pepper, soy sauce and other spices to create a tasty, spicy sauce. The crab pieces are then mixed with the sauce and served with rice. Kdam chaa is a simple but delicious dish that brings out the natural, delicate flavour of blue crab.
It can be found in Cambodian seafood restaurants, as well as in street markets and food stalls, where Cambodia’s coastal towns offer an abundance of fresh seafood. Kdam chaa is therefore an excellent way to savour the richness and variety of Cambodian cuisine.
4. Somlar Kari Saek Mouan (Khmer red curry)
Somlar Kari Saek Mouan, also known as Khmer red curry, is a traditional Cambodian dish distinguished by its mild flavour and its lemony, vegetal notes. This chicken curry is prepared by cooking pieces of chicken in a coconut-based sauce, seasoned with Cambodian kroeung paste, prawn paste, fish sauce and palm sugar.
To add texture and nutrients, you can also add vegetables such as purple sweet potatoes, onions, bamboo shoots, carrots, aubergines, long beans or spinach.
Khmer red curry is appreciated for its unique flavour, which combines hot spices such as chilli, ginger and turmeric with a creamy, fragrant sauce. The dish is hearty and comforting, and is often served with white rice to soak up the sauce and create a complete and balanced meal.
5. Bai sach chrouk (Pork and rice)
Bai sach chrouk is a traditional Cambodian breakfast dish, made with grilled marinated pork and served over white rice. To balance flavour and texture, this dish is often accompanied by fresh cucumbers, coriander, mint and other aromatic herbs. The pork is marinated in a sauce made from soy sauce, palm sugar and other spices to give the meat a sweet and savoury flavour. It is then grilled until crisp and golden. This dish is commonly sold in street food stalls and small restaurants in the city.
Bai sach chrouk is a great way to start the day with a hot, nourishing meal that will give you the energy you need to explore the wonders of Cambodian culture. It’s a popular dish with locals and visitors alike, who can easily find it in towns and cities across Cambodia.
6. Kuy teav (Phnom Penh noodle soup)
If you’re a fan of noodles, be sure to try Kuy teav. This Cambodian rice noodle dish is very popular in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. It consists of fresh rice noodles served in a clear meat-based broth, topped with slices of pork, liver, meatballs and fresh herbs. The broth is prepared by simmering pork and beef bones with herbs and spices, giving it a rich, fragrant flavour.
Rice noodles are added to the hot broth to warm and tenderise them. Kuy teav Phnom Penh is often served with slices of grilled pork and pork liver, as well as pork or beef meatballs. It is then garnished with green onions, coriander and black pepper for added flavour and texture. Kuy teav Phnom Penh is a hearty, comforting dish that is often served for breakfast or lunch.
7. Samla Chapek (spicy Cambodian soup)
Samla Chapek is a spicy Cambodian soup made from fish cooked in coconut milk and spices such as lemongrass. Catfish is one of the most commonly used varieties of fish, but other types can also be used. To prepare this soup, onion, garlic, lemongrass and other ingredients are sautéed in oil, then coconut milk, water and spices are added. The fish is then added and cooked until tender and aromatic.
Samla Chapek is a dish rich in flavour, with a combination of sweet, salty and spicy tastes. It is often accompanied by fresh vegetables, such as spinach or taro leaves, to add texture and flavour. This dish is popular for its unique flavour and delicate texture, and is often served with rice to make a complete meal.
8. Nom banh chok (Curry and fish noodles)
Nom banh chok is a dish of fresh, light rice noodles served with a fragrant fish sauce and fresh vegetables. This dish is a classic in rural Cambodia, where it is often eaten for breakfast or lunch. Rice noodles are served in a bowl with fish sauce and fresh vegetables arranged on top, such as fresh herbs, bamboo shoots, cucumbers and lettuce leaves.
Nom banh chok is a simple but delicious dish that is appreciated for its fresh, balanced flavour. If you want to discover traditional Cambodian cuisine, Nom banh chok is a dish not to be missed.
9. Lap khmer (Cambodian beef salad)
Lap, a minced meat salad originally from Cambodia, is usually prepared with finely minced beef or pork, mixed with fresh herbs, spices and a sweet and sour sauce. The fresh herbs used in Lap often include Thai basil, mint, coriander and green onions. The sauce is made with lime juice, sugar, fish sauce and garlic, creating a balanced blend of sweet, salty and tangy flavours.
Lap can be served as a main course or as a starter. It is often accompanied by fresh vegetables such as cucumber or lettuce to add texture and freshness. Lap is a popular dish for Cambodians because of its simplicity, but also because of its unique flavour and versatility.
10. Fried insects
The insects most commonly eaten in Cambodia are grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, ants and spiders. They are usually fried in oil until crisp and golden, then seasoned with salt, pepper and other spices to give them a savoury flavour.
Although eating insects may seem strange to the uninitiated, it is in fact an important source of protein for Cambodians, especially in rural areas where meat can be scarce and expensive. What’s more, insect production is more environmentally friendly than meat production, requiring fewer resources to raise and feed.
For adventurous travellers looking to discover local cuisine, Cambodian fried insects offer a unique and memorable culinary experience.
11. Pong tia koon (hatched egg)
Cambodia is famous for its exotic cuisine, which includes dishes such as balut. Although it may seem strange to some, Cambodians eat a wide variety of foods. Balut, considered one of the most famous national specialities, is a boiled duck egg containing a developing chick.
Although balut is common in other South-East Asian countries, it is particularly popular in Cambodia and can be found in restaurants in Siem Reap, among other places.
12. Ang dtray meuk (Grilled squid in sauce)
In Cambodian seaside towns, itinerant seafood vendors carry small charcoal ovens on their shoulders to cook grilled squid as they walk along the shore.
The squid is brushed with lime juice or fish sauce, then grilled on wooden skewers and served with a spicy chilli sauce from the seaside province of Koh Kong. This sauce is made from garlic, fresh chillies, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar.
Ang Tray Meuk is often eaten as a snack with beer or wine at parties and gatherings. The squid is perfectly grilled, giving a firm texture and a slightly smoky flavour. The dish is often garnished with fresh coriander and chillies to add a touch of flavour and spiciness.
13. Cha houy teuk (Sweet jelly dessert)
With its colourful decoration, Cha houy teuk offers unique and varied taste sensations. This dessert is appreciated for its delicate texture and sweet, creamy taste. It comes in a bowl or glass, and is made from sweet mung bean jelly boiled with coconut milk and sugar. Fresh fruit such as bananas, mangoes, lychees or tinned fruit are often added for a touch of freshness.
Cha houy teuk is commonly sold in street markets and food stalls throughout the country. It is a healthy and delicious dessert choice for all lovers of Cambodian cuisine.
14. Sankhya lapov
Sankhya Lapov is a traditional Cambodian dessert consisting of a small pumpkin filled with a creamy custard. The custard is made by mixing coconut milk or cream, palm sugar paste, eggs and salt. In general, it is best to use kabocha squash, which has a dark green skin and bright orange flesh with a sweet flavour.
To prepare this dessert, the top of the pumpkin is cut off and the seeds removed. The cavity is then filled with custard, and the top of the pumpkin is replaced before steaming until cooked through. Sankhya Lapov can be eaten hot or cold, and is traditionally prepared for special occasions and religious festivals.
This dessert is appreciated for its creamy texture and mild, sweet flavour. It is also considered a healthy dessert as it is made from natural products such as pumpkin, coconut milk and palm sugar paste.
15. Nom Plae Ai
Nom Plae Ai is a Cambodian dessert made from coconut milk, sugar and glutinous rice flour. This dessert is baked in cup-shaped moulds and is usually served cold. The texture is soft and slightly elastic, while the taste is sweet and fragrant thanks to the use of pandan leaves.
Nom Plae Ai is often sold at local markets and on the streets of Cambodia. It is easy to prepare at home and can be enjoyed as a dessert or light snack.
Our final words
Cambodian dishes are often prepared using fresh, local ingredients such as rice, vegetables, herbs and seafood, and are often accompanied by unique sauces and spices. Influences from neighbouring countries are also visible in Cambodian cuisine, creating an interesting fusion of flavours and culinary techniques. Tasting Cambodian cuisine is therefore a must for any visitor wishing to discover the country’s culture and culinary traditions.