Phnom Penh restaurants are emerging asculinary surprise packages to match larger and more established Southeast Asian neighbours. Traditional Khmer street food surrounds the footpath of haute cuisine restaurants, and cafes and bistros of every variety sprout in alleys and old colonial houses. Here are 10 restaurants that showcase Phnom Penh’s diversity when itcomes to dining experiences.
Cambodian food is a thousand-year-old tradition. To discover it, you must step back in time to the era of the kingdom of Angkor, the cradle of Khmer civilisation, when Cambodian cuisine forged its unique identity. Here, cooking is an oral art that has been passed down over time from mother to daughter. It is from this ancestral rite that Cambodian cuisine developed. Thanks to the influence of many countries, Cambodian cooking has been enriched and expanded over the centuries. China introduced the steaming method and the use of soy and noodles and India introduced curries, to name but two examples. These influences contribute to the particularly wide range of flavours that surprise the palate and stimulate the taste buds. Salty and sweet, and downright bitter and sour, go hand in hand or are blended subtly, sometimes within a single dish, to create a deliciously harmonious and original result. There’s food to please even the pickiest of palates.
Fish is readily available and can be found in many of their dishes, from fish soup broth to fermented fish paste, to spicy grilled fish as a main course. Depending on whether you are eating a sweet dish for desert or having it as a side to your main course, sticky or jasmine rice is among the favourites. In many of their sauces and deserts, the French influence is evident as well. Where you will get a taste of the French influence is when you bite into the baguettes. They are always fresh and crisp, and they are fantastic as a mid-morning snack when cycling around the city.
The Amok is considered as the essence of Cambodian cuisine. This is a dish which combines the full flavors of this land: sweetness from jaggery, creamy sweetness of coconut water, a gently faint aroma of Prahok sauce, mingled with the characteristic flavor of banana leaves. ish amok is one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes, but you’ll find similar meals in neighboring countries. The addition of slok ngor, a local herb that imparts a subtly bitter flavor, separates the Cambodian version from the pack. Fish amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, or Chinese ginger. At upscale restaurants fish amok is steamed in a banana leaf, while more local places serve a boiled version that is more like a soupy fish curry than a mousse.
Breakfast-time in Phnom Penh starts around six in the morning, but the street food stands don’t start really hopping until seven and most of them serve until they run out at around nine. One of the most popular breakfasts — in addition to Khmer noodles — is Bai Sach Chrouk, or pork with rice.
Sliced pork is slowly grilled over charcoal on a wire grill. Sometimes it’s plain, sometimes it’s been marinated in coconut milk or garlic, but other times it’s just the slow roasting of the pork that brings out the sweetness in the meat. Some chefs add a topping of ground pork, as if there weren’t enough pork already on the plate. A sprinkling of fried scallion or green tomatoes or fresh cucumbers are served on top. Bai sach chrouk is usually served with broken rice. Broken rice used to be reserved for pet food, but there’s a Khmer fable about an evil stepmother who forces her beautiful stepdaughter to eat the leftover food and broken rice that is meant for the chickens. An old woman came to the door and asked for food. As evil stepmothers are wont to do, she cruelly said no and sent the old woman away. The stepdaughter offered to share her dinner of broken rice with the old woman, who turned out to be a prince in disguise searching for a wife. Because of this fable, broken rice is a popular dish, particularly among young ladies of a marriageable age. Bai sach chrouk is served with a side of pickled, slightly sweet cucumber, carrot, ginger and daikon and a small bowl of clear chicken broth with scallions and sometimes, fried onions. You can drink the soup on its own, or locals like to dip their spoon into the broth before each bite of rice. Some places will also sell fried eggs that you can add to your plate.
Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad - Khmer beef salad features thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or “cooked” ceviche-style by marinating with lime juice. Dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans and green pepper, the sweet and salty dish also packs a punch in the heul (spicy) department with copious amounts of fresh red chilis. A refreshing dish that is more beef than salad, lap Khmer is popular with Cambodian men, who prefer the beef to be nearly raw — but at restaurants it’s generally served grilled.
Fried crab is a specialty of the Cambodian seaside town of Kep. Its lively crab market is known for fried crab prepared with green, locally grown Kampot pepper.
Aromatic Kampot pepper is famous among gourmands worldwide, and although it is available in its dried form internationally, you’ll only be able to sample the distinctively flavored immature green peppercorns in Cambodia.
It’s worth a visit to Kep and Kampot for that alone, but Phnom Penh restaurants bring live crabs in from the coast to make their own version of this delicious dish, which includes both Kampot pepper and flavorful garlic chives.
Less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand, Khmer red curry is similarly coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili. The dish features duck, beef, chicken or fish, eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass and kroeung. This delicious dish is usually served at special occasions in Cambodia such as weddings, family gatherings and religious holidays like Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day, where Cambodians make the dish to share with monks in honor of the departed. Khmer red curry is usually served with bread — a remnant of the French influence on Cambodia.
Forget about brownie sundaes, forget about éclairs and chocolate cake. The real desserts, the sinfully sweet and decadent treats, can be found in one place: Cambodia. In the country these desserts are called Khmer sweets, and they are a staple to any full Cambodian meal. Generally, Cambodian treats are egg-based dishes that are spiced up with a variety of flavors.
Dessert in Cambodia is a little different from dessert in the West. For starters, instead of being served at the end of the meal or in the evening, Cambodian desserts are most frequently enjoyed mid-morning. Instead of being served in the home as a cap on a delicious meal, the desserts are bought and enjoyed in markets as you are doing your shopping around town. Finally, the ingredients in Cambodian treats are less traditional than the sweet flavours you typically see in Western desserts. Look for ingredients like cassava, mung beans, and lotus seeds paired with sticky sweet syrups like coconut cream, palm syrup, and condensed milk. Beyond these ingredients you can always expect to have at least one fresh fruit added to the mix. Look for favorites like mangoes, rambutan, durian and of course, bananas
In the local open-air markets, dessert ingredients are usually displayed in large bowls. Patrons point out their desired items which are then scooped into a bowl, served over crushed ice, and covered in sweet toppings. There’s nothing as delicious as your first taste of a true Cambodian sweet.