Staples & Specialities
Nom Banh Chok
Cambodia’s lush fields provide the rice and its abundant waterways the fish that is fermented into prahoc (fermented fish paste), which together form the backbone of Khmer cuisine. Built around these are the flavors that give the cuisine its kick, the secret roots, the welcome herbs and the aromatic tubers. Together they give the salads, snacks, soups and stews a unique aroma and taste that smacks of Cambodia. Whatever they are preparing, a Khrmer cook will demand freshness and a healthy balance of flavors and textures.
Rice is the principal staple, enshrined in the Khmer word for eating or to eat, nam bai, literally ‘eat rice’. Many a Cambodian, particularly drivers, will run out of steam if they run out of rice. It doesn’t matter that the same carbohydrates are available in other foods, it is rice and rice alone that counts. Battambang Province the Cambodia’s rice bowl and produces the country’s finest yield.
For the taste of Cambodia in a bowl, try the local kyteow, a rice noodle soup that will keep you going all day. This full and balanced meal will cost you loss than just 2000r in markets and up to US$1 in local restaurants. No noodles? Then try the babor (rice porridge), a national institution, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and best sampled with some fresh fish and a splash of ginger.
A Cambodian meal almost always includes a samlor (traditional soup) which will appear at the same time as the other courses.Samlor machou bank (hot and sour fish soup with pineapple and a splash of spices) is popular. Other popular soups includesamlor chapek (ginger-flavoured pork soup), samlor machou bawng Kawng (prawn soup limilar to the popular Thai tom yam) andsamlor ktis (fish soup with Coconut and pineapple).
Much of the fish eaten in Cambodia is freshwater, from Tonle Sap lake or the Mekong River. Trey ahng (grilled fish) is a Cambodian speciality (ahng means ‘grilled’ and can be applied to many dishes). Traditionally, the fish is eaten as pieces wrapped in lettuce or spinach leaves and then dipped into teuk trey, a fish sauce that is a close relative of Vietnam’s nuoc mam, but with the addition of ground peanuts.
Cambodian salad dishes are also popular and delicious, although quite diffirent from the Western idea of a sold salad. Phlea sait kow is a beef and vegetable salad, flavored with coriander, mint and lemon grass. These three herbs find their way into many Cambodian dishes.
Desserts can be sampled cheaply at night markets around the country. One sweet snack to look out for is the ice-cream sandwich. No kidding; it’s popular with the kids and involves putting a slab of homemade ice cream in a piece of sponge or bread. It actually doesn’t taste too bad.
Cambodia is blessed with many tropical fruits and sampling these is an integral part of a visit to the country. All the common fruits can be found in abundance, including chek (bananas), menoa (pineapples) and duong (coconuts). Among the larger fruit, khnau(jackruit) is very common, often weighing more than 20kg. Beneath the green skin are bright yellow segments with a distinctive taste and rubbery texture. The taurain (durian) usually needs no introduction, as you can smell it from a mile off. The exterior is green with sharp spines while inside is a milky, soft interior regarded by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. It stinks, although some maintain it is an acquired taste – best acquired with a nose peg.
The fruits most popular with visitors include the mongkut (mangosteen) and sao mao (rambutan). The small mangos teen has a purple skin that contains white segments with a divine flavor. Queen Victoria is said to have offered a reward to anyone able to transport an edible mangos teen back to England. Similarly popular is the rambutan, the interior like a lychee, but the exterior covered in soft red and green spines.
Best of all, although common throughout the world, are the smy (mangoes). The Cambodian mango season is from April to May. Other varieties of mango are available year round, but it’s the Cambodian ones that are a taste sensation.