From sampling rum from Cambodia’s first rum distillery to squid skewers, we’ve rounded up our delicious musts for your trip to Cambodia.
Cambodian cuisine is heavily seafood based, with freshwater fish from the Mekong and Tonle Sap, as well as crab, shrimp, squid, and other shellfish. Bunches of fresh herbs also play a starring role, making everything from noodle soup kuy teav to beef salad lap Khmer deliciously aromatic. You can’t go wrong just following your nose, but we’ve rounded up 15 things you should add to your eat-and-drink bucket list on your trip to Cambodia.
This is classic Cambodian dish in which fish (or sometimes beef or chicken) is steamed in a banana leaf in curry sauce or paste. The curry is made from coconut milk, chilis (though it’s not very spicy), garlic, lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and sometimes galangel. The fish is doused in curry paste, steamed, and sometimes served in its pretty banana leaf basket, topped with a few rings of red chili pepper and paired with steamed rice.
A pair of Venezuelan expats in Phnom Penh are behind Cambodia’s first rum distillery, Samai, born of the pair’s thirst for rum and Cambodia’s ample sugarcane crop. Daniel Pacheco and Antonio Lopez De Haro work with distiller to Moang Darachampich to produce three varieties of rum: Samai Gold with notes of dark chocolate, honey, and vanilla and Kampot Pepper, made with kampot peppers from an organic farm in Kampot; and limited edition Samai PX, with fruity notes (raisin, fig, and plum) and a rich toffee, coffee, and chocolate finish.
Craft Beer from Local Breweries
A cold Angkor Beer can be nice to sink after a day of exploring Angkor Wat, its namesake temples, but its taste pales in comparison to the handful of craft beers now being brewed in Cambodia. Phnom Penh’s Himawari Microbrewery is inside the upscale hotel of the same name. It has four beers on tap—blonde ales Apsara Gold and Gem & Jade, IPA CentenniALE, and stout Oats—best enjoyed during daily happy hour. Cerevisia brews more than a dozen beers in Phnom Penh, slinging its beers, like chocolate stout Darth Side and honey pale ale Rattanak ESB at their tap room, Botanico and at bars in Phnom Penh. Siem Reap Brewpub serves its six beers at its pub a block from the river, including a saison, an IPA, and a hefeweizen (wheat beer). Down in Kampot is tiny Flowers Nanobrewery, an operation run out of the house of the delightful owner, Yuki, who not only brews beer but makes and serves sushi and okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes). Flowers usually brews four beers—an IPA, a wheat porter, a steam beer, and a lemongrass pale ale—and if it’s a brewing week, guests are welcome to give homebrewing a try.
These little fried rice flour and chive cakes are fairly addictive. If you’ve had Chinese cong you bing (aka scallion pancake) you’re familiar with the concept, but the Cambodian version is plumper and made with rice flour and chives instead of scallion. There are two types, both fried in oil in a wide, shallow pan and definitely greasy—round and filled with chives or square with chives mixed into the batter.
Bai Sach Chrouk
Stroll by a row of street stalls early in the morning and you’re likely to see—and smell—one serving bai sach chrouk. This breakfast dish is marinated pork, sometimes in coconut milk with garlic, sometimes in soy sauce and sugar, then grilled slowly before being served over rice, with pickled cucumber, daikon, and carrot, and a bowl of broth.
Num Sang Khya L’peou
The name is a mouthful and so is this uniquely delicious dessert. A pumpkin is filled with a custard made of egg, sugar, and coconut milk and the whole thing is steamed until the custard is set. It’s then sliced into wedges; when you dig your fork in, you get the dueling tastes of tender pumpkin and creamy custard.
Nom Banh Chok
This rice noodle soup is a common breakfast eaten from street stands, and you’ll find it available until the early afternoon. Rice noodles float in a fish broth and are topped with a variety of vegetables and herbs, like sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil, mint, and banana flower. The recipe changes up depending on where in the country you are; in Siem Reap, your bowl of nom banh chok is likely to have garlic and coconut milk; in coastal Kampot, it will probably have dried shrimp and crushed peanuts.
Vendors sell assorted sour fruits at street stalls and markets, bowls piled high or glass cases filled with near towers of fruit. You’ll usually find sour fruits like green mango, guava, soursop, tamarind, water apple, and santol. These are tossed in a mix of sugar, salt, and chili (the large fruits are sliced and coated). Sweet fruits like sliced mango and papaya are also commonly sold, served with a little bag of the salt-chili-sugar mixture.
Beef, ceviche-style with lime juice or seared, gets tossed with fish sauce, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, basil, mint, green beans, and chili peppers. The result is a little sour, a little spicy, and refreshing. Restaurants where most visitors go tend to sear the beef, but if you’re eating at a more local joint, the beef may be raw or close to it.
Fried and Grilled Bananas
Enjoy short and squat yellow bananas two ways from street vendors across the country. The bananas are either skewered and grilled over charcoal—softening, warming, and caramelizing them—or flattened, dipped in a batter dotted with black sesame seeds, and then fried. The fried bananas taste great, the banana melty beneath the oil-crispy crust, but of course, are far less healthy.
Photogenic lort cha isn’t, but this heart dish of short, wide rice noodles is toothsome and filling, prepared in street and market vendors’ big woks. The noodles are stir-fried with fish and soy sauces and greens like morning glory or Chinese broccoli and topped with bean sprouts, a sweet-spicy chili sauce, and a fried egg.
In seaside Kep you’ll find crab dish kdam chaa at loads of restaurants, including at the crab market. Here, choose your ultra-fresh crab (and squid, octopus, fish, shrimp, etc.), which is then cooked up and served at a little table adjoining the stall. Kdam chaa is crab stir-fried with fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and Kampot pepper, young green peppercorns are grown in nearby Kampot.
A breakfast favorite but served all day in markets, kuy teav is egg or thin rice noodles in pork broth. The toppings depend on what the vendor has available and whether you’re inland or near the coast: sometimes it’s shrimp or squid, sometimes it’s pork or beef. Floating in the broth are usually green onions, bean sprouts, coriander or basil. Kuy teav is usually served with little bowls of chili paste, pickled chilis, fish sauce, and soy sauce, and sugar and sometimes a fried dough stick (cha kway).
Red Tree Ants with Beef and Basil
If tarantulas aren’t quite your thing but you want to give insects a try, red tree ants with beef and basil is a good entry point. The ants are stir-fried with shallots, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, and beef cut into thin sliced. This is topped with a handful of chilis and served with basil and a side of rice. It’s on the menu at Phnom Penh social enterprise restaurant Romdeng.