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The JT Insider Food Guide: Cambodia

From her home of Phnom Penh, food writer Rebecca Luria-Phillips gives us her tips on what to try to experience the best of Cambodia’s cuisine.

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Food of the nation

Cambodian cuisine is built on a balance of contrasts in taste – salty, sweet, bitter and sour – and in texture – tender and crunchy. The flavour profile is similar to the cuisines of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, and the range of ingredients available is vast.”

“Many dishes are based on green, yellow or red paste, each of which is rich in garlic, shallots, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric and lemongrass, with their colours defined by the addition of dried chillies or lemongrass leaves. Cambodian curry has a base of the yellow paste, with star anise and coconut milk.”

“The Cambodian diet is reliant on fish due to people’s proximity to lakes and rivers, as well as the Gulf of Thailand, and a familiar condiment at homes and in restaurants is a fermented fish paste called prahok. To foreigners, the smell can be a blow to the senses, but it adds a lot of the flavour nuances to Cambodian cuisine.”

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National dish

“Fish amok is the national dish here. This dish is an amalgamation of dried red chillies, turmeric, lemongrass, shallots, garlic and kaffir lime, pounded into a paste with a mortar and pestle to form the flavour base. Coconut milk and fish sauce is added to make a soup, then a banana leaf is fashioned into a bowl, and the soup is poured into the bowl, over pieces of river fish.  The whole package is steamed until it’s a custard-like texture, then eaten with rice. You can find this dish at any Khmer restaurant.”

Three to try

Khmer Pancake: “A thin rice flour crepe that’s made with coconut milk and turmeric is fried until the edges crisp up, then it’s stuffed with pork mince, dried shrimp and bean sprouts. It’s then dressed with fresh herbs, cucumber, lettuce, and a sweet fish sauce. You can find them at vendors in the country’s food markets.”

Barbecue Pork and Rice: “For breakfast, try these thin cutlets of marinated pork that are grilled and served over white rice and accompanied by a fried egg and pickled vegetables. It can be found at street vendors and and in the markets before 9am. It’s sure to be an authentic experience.”

Kroeung [curry]: “A well made curry with aromatic spices is a beautiful experience for the senses. It’s signature fragrance comes from the combination of lemongrass, kaffir lime and coconut milk, aided by star anise and ginger, and makes the Cambodian curry unbeatable.”

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Street eats

“When I go for street food, it’s usually a snack like on som ang. Sweet bananas are encased in sticky rice that’s been cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar, then the whole package is roasted inside a banana leaf on top of a grill. The rice caramelises and forms a hard crust, while the banana melts inside. It’s the Southeast Asian, street side version of creme brulee.”

Regional cuisine

“The closer you are to a lake or the sea, the greater the role seafood plays in the cuisine. In the seaside province of Kampot they have a special dish called Kampot Noodles that’s full of large, sweet dried shrimp, fish cake and peanuts. And, in Siem Reap, which is just a short drive from Tonle Sap lake, there’s a version of Khmer Noodles in which the noodles are served with a fish soup with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, garlic and shallots.”

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An authentically local dining experience

“In Phnom Penh, try the Khmer barbecue at Sovanna restaurant on Street 21 near the Independence Monument. You can find barbecue stands on nearly every corner of the city, but Sovanna has seating and enables you to dine amongst the local community. To keep it authentic, be sure to order outside your usual comfort zone and always dip your barbecued meat in one of the signature Cambodian condiments, such as ambel marek, which is made from Kampot pepper, sea salt, lime and sugar.”

The drink

“Try the fresh coconut water or sugar cane juice. They are so refreshing in Cambodia’s heat.”

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The latest food trend

“Right now, I’m seeing an influx of Japanese restaurants purveying sushi, ramen, barbecue, tempura and bento boxes. Plus, there’s the street side staple, Khmer coffee , which is coffee and sweetened condensed milk, served over ice . It’s been around for decades, but recently there’s been a proliferation of branded coffee carts – tuktuks kitted out with coffee urns.”

The neighbourhood

“Go to Central Phnom Penh. There’s such a diverse range of food and so many cuisines to choose from, with Khmer, French, Mexican, Korean and  Lebanese, among many others. You can satisfy whatever craving you have.”

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See more of Rebecca’s tips on what to eat in Cambodia on the her website Real Food Cambodia.