Are you wondering what to eat in Cambodia? Just like any other major cities in Southeast Asia, Cambodia offer you the options to eat in restaurants or enjoy street food made to order fresh on street stalls. Every afternoon Cambodian students sit down to enjoy some of their country’s most delicious dishes: its street food. But for expats this is one of the least savored facets of Cambodia’s generally under-appreciated cuisine.
Many expats believe that the Kingdom’s roadside delicacies consist of little more more than deep-fried tarantulas and stir-fried crickets. Concerns about hygiene also keep some foreigners from indulging.
But the best street food isn’t about bugs–either the edible or intestinal kind–and it’s too good to miss. You just need to choose wisely. The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria. And despite what you may have heard, the ice in Cambodia is generally safe to consume. “Street food has two advantages over food cooked in restaurants: transparency and immediacy. When you eat on the street nothing is hidden; you can judge whether or not the person handling your food, the surface on which it’s prepped and the plate on which it will be served is clean,” said food journalist Robyn Eckhardt, who has written extensively about street food in Asia and Turkey for international publications. “And because the time from stall to table is just seconds, you can be confident that your food hasn’t languished long enough to collect the odd bacteria.”
Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are the country’s culinary centres, boasting excellent Cambodian food and international cuisine. Towns with a well-developed tourist infrastructure will usually have a number of restaurants serving a mix of Cambodian, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes.
One of the most popular breakfasts in town, kuy teav is a noodle soup made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli and topped with fried shallots, green onions and bean sprouts. Fish balls and pork are usually added, although you’ll sometimes find rare-beef kuy teav as well. But don’t dare call it pho! Many Cambodians believe that the dish originated in Kampuchea Krom–the area of Southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer Empire–and that the famous Vietnamese soup came second. A delicious Phnom Penh speciality version of the soup, kuy teav Phnom Penh, featuring blood, liver, intestines and tongue, is not for the faint of heart (or squeamish expats).
Served early mornings on street corners all over Cambodia, bai sach chrouk, or pork and rice, is one of the simplest and most delicious dishes the country has to offer.
Thinly sliced pork is slow grilled over warm coals to bring out its natural sweetness. Sometimes the pork will be marinated in coconut milk or garlic — no two bai sach chrouks are ever exactly the same.
The grilled pork is served over a hearty portion of broken rice, with a helping of freshly pickled cucumbers and daikon radish with plenty of ginger.
On the side, you’ll often be given a bowl of chicken broth topped with scallions and fried onions.
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.
Perhaps the easiest introduction to street food is its beverages. The thoroughfares of Phnom Penh are lined with coffee shops selling kar-fe toek doh koh toek gok, or iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you’re like me, knowing that the beans are roasted in lard makes the sweet, strong coffee taste that much better. Some choose to have it without the condensed milk, but they underestimate the mental clarity aroused by the tingling of dental cavities caused by the drink’s unabashed treacliness.
Nompang is a trendy little fast-food outlet that’s taken the humble nompang Cambodian sandwich – normally dished out from handcarts – upmarket. Crusty baguette rolls packed with plenty of fresh salads and coriander, they come in omelette, black pepper chicken, roast pork (our favourite), lunchmeat and meatball varieties ranging in price from $1.50 to $2. Perfect as a big snack, two are enough to satisfy even the strongest hunger pangs.
Fish 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.
Variations of fried noodles abound in Cambodia, but whether they’re made with short, thick rice noodles that resemble worms, soft yellow egg noodles or packaged deep-fried instant ramen noodles, mi char is one of the simplest and most satisfying afternoon snacks. While sellers have many different variations, beef and pork stir-fried with tender greens are the most common. For an added treat, ask for a fried egg on top.