Exploring Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine is a journey full of the unexpected that doesn't disappoint. Sandwiched between the culinary heavyweights of Vietnam and Thailand, a trip to Cambodia is often overlooked when it comes to cuisine, but its rich history and culture are reflected in every dish. Khmer cuisine is one of the world's oldest, with a focus on fresh ingredients based on season and region. While not as spicy as its neighbors' cuisine, meals focus on harmonious arrangements of contrasting flavors and textures with an abundance of herbs, pickle vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers, and other garnishes/condiments.
The best way to sample the variety of flavors in a country is to seek out it's street food. With a knowledgeable guide to help you find safe and tasty options you can get to know a country's flavor palate in just a couple hours. Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, is a great place to explore Khmer cuisine. Hop in a tuk tuk or head out on foot with your guide to visit Phsar Kandal (central market), not to be confused with the "real" Central Market), Phnom Penh's oldest market to enjoy some local delights from fruits and veggies, to savory dishes and tasty sweets. One popular dish is lort cha, a stir-fried dish consisting of lort (short fat rice noodles), with bean sprouts, broccoli, and chives. It's typically cooked with beef, topped with a fried egg, and a thick red, sweet and spicy sauce. There are always red chilies if you want to sprinkle them on for a little more spice. Another favorite, is sachkor ang (BBQ beef skewers). The beef has a very tender, shwarma-like texture and is grilled fresh over high heat, giving it a nice smokey flavor. It's rubbed with coconut, lemongrass, and ginger and served on a bamboo skewer making it an easy on-the-go snack.
Those with a sweet-tooth (like me) don't fear, there are plenty of options to quench that craving. Continue on to Pshar Chas (Old Market) to try some sweet treats like nom krok, small traditional snacks made from rice and coconut juice cooked in clay pots, or sample chek ktis, a delicious banana dessert made warm with tapioca, gelatin, and coconut milk. With full bellies, continue exploring Phnom Penh's Old Quarter and markets.
Fish Amok Recipe
While not street food, one of my favorite dishes in Cambodia is fish amok, thought to be Cambodia's National dish, it's a delightful steamed fish curry. Amok, in Khmer, refers to the process of steam cooking a curry in banana leaves. I've eaten in several times and it varies each time based on region and vegetable seasonality. It seems every family has a little tweak on this national favorite. It is typically steamed and served in a banana leaf with a little coconut cream on top. This one-pot recipe is a bit easier to create at home and is just as tasty! Check out the recipe for fish amok below:
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large shallot bulb, finely chopped
3 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, inner tender stalk only, finely chopped
½ inch piece galangal, peeled and finely chopped - available frozen at an Asian market
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon tumeric powder
1 teaspoon light brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chili paste – like Sambal Oelek
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ teaspoon shrimp paste (optional) – substitute anchovy paste if you can't find shrimp paste
1 cup coconut milk, well shaken
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ pound firm, mild white fish – like halibut, mahi mahi, or true cod, skin removed
1 cup fresh spinach leaves, cut into ½-inch thick ribbons
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Julianned red bell pepper
Kaffir lime leaf ribbons – thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves
Curry Paste - Place first 5 ingredients (above) in a food processor and process until a smooth paste forms. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until all spices are well incorporated.
Fish Amok - Thinly slice the fish into ½-inch thick bite size pieces and set aside. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the curry paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the shrimp paste, coconut milk, sugar and salt, whisking to combine. Turn the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes, whisking occasionally. Add the fish and spinach leaves, gently folding the fish into the curry sauce with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Let the amok simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Turn the heat off.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg with the fish sauce and 2 tablespoons of the curry sauce from the pan. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and gently fold it into the curry.
Serve the amok in a bowl with a spoonful of coconut cream (the thick cream that rises to the top of the remaining coconut milk), a few julienne cut red pepper pieces and a sprinkling of kaffir lime leaf ribbons.
Ready to taste Khmer cuisine and explore Cambodia? Check out our Ultimate Vietnam and Cambodia adventure or we would be happy to customize an adventure for you. Give me a call at 800.345.4453.