The most important tip I can give you on Cambodia local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Cambodia, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Cambodia
While not the strongest link in Southeast Asia’s chain of delightful cuisine (due to the Khmer Rouge era, Khmer cuisine were nearly wiped out), Khmer food is tasty and cheap. Rice and occasionally noodles are the staples. Unlike in Thailand or Laos, spicy hot food is not the mainstay; black pepper is preferred over chilli peppers, though chillis are usually served on the side. Thai and Vietnamese influences can be noted in Khmer food, although Cambodians love strong sour tastes in their dishes. Prahok, a local fish paste, is common in Khmer cooking and may not please Western palates. There are plenty of Indian and Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh and the larger towns. Typical Khmer dishes include: Amok – Arguably the most well known Cambodian dish. A coconut milk curried dish less spicy than those found in Thailand.
Amok is usually made with chicken, fish or shrimp, plus some vegetables. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side. Quite delicious. K’tieu (Kuytheav) – A noodle soup generally served for breakfast. Can be made with pork, beef or seafood. Flavourings are added to the customers taste in the form of lime juice, chili powder, sugar and fish sauce. Somlah Machou Khmae – A sweet and sour soup made with pineapple, tomatoes and fish. Bai Sarch Ch’rouk – Another breakfast staple. Rice (bai) with pork meat (sarch chrouk) often barbequed. Very tasty and served with some pickled vegetables. Saik Ch’rouk Cha Kn’yei – Pork fried with ginger.
Ginger is commonly used as a vegetable. This tasty dish is available just about everywhere. Lok lak – Chopped up beef cooked quickly. Probably a holdover from the days of French colonization. Served with a simple dipping sauce made from lime juice and black pepper, lettuce, onion, and often with chips. Mi / Bai Chaa – Fried noodles or rice. Never particularly inspiring, but a good traveller’s staple. Trey Ch’ien Chou ‘Ayme – Trey (fish) fried with a sweet chili sauce and vegetables. Very tasty. Chou ‘ayme is the phrase for “sweet and sour”. K’dam – Crab. Kampot in the south is famous for its crab cooked in locally sourced black pepper.
A very tasty meal. Don’t forget Khmer desserts – Pong Aime (sweets). These are available from stalls in most Khmer towns and can be excellent. Choose from a variety of sweetmeats and have them served with ice, condensed milk and sugar water. A must try is the Tuk-a-loc, a blended drink of fruits, raw egg, sweetened condensed milk and ice. Happy Pizza can be found in many places (usually with the word ‘Happy’ in their restaurant name). They are basically sub-par pizza sprinkled with a kind of ‘herb’ that is illegal in some countries. You may have to ask for it to be added when you order. Best not to be driving or biking after eating.
There is also a wide variety of fresh fruit available from markets. The prices vary according to which fruit is in season but mangoes (around Khmer New Year, with up to 9 varieties on sale) and mangosteen (May/June) are both superb, although may not be as good as neighbouring Thailand’s. Other popular Khmer foods which may be less palatable to foreigners include pregnant eggs (duck eggs with the embryo still inside, you can custom order how big or how many days old of your embryo), and almost every variety of creepy-crawly, including spiders, crickets, water beetles. Also, barbecued rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds can be found.
What to Drink in Cambodia
The tap water supply in Phnom Penh has undergone significant changes following a “water revolutionary” in the government, Ek Sonn Chan. Consequently in Phnom Penh you can drink the tap water without problem, although it is highly chlorinated and you may not like the taste. Locals usually do not drink the tap water, and old pipes may make some water non potable. Also there is some concern about the bottle water vendors: the U.S. Embassy web site says that “In 2008, Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy reported that more than 100 bottled- water companies in Cambodia were being considered for closure for failing to meet minimum production quality standards.
Only 24 of the 130 bottled-water companies are compliant with the ministry’s Department of Industrial Standards.” That page seems to be down on bottled water generally, so take it with a grain of salt. Outside of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap tap water should be assumed not to be potable. Khmer brand water in blue plastic bottles sell for 1000 riels or less, although prices are often marked up for tourists to 50 cents or a dollar. Soft drinks Iced coffee is ubiquitous in Cambodia. It is made Vietnamese style, freshly brewed and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Walk past a local eatery any time of the day and you are bound to see at least a table of locals drinking them. One glass costs between 1500-2000riel. Iced tea made with lemon and sugar is also refreshing and ubiquitous.
Fresh coconut can be found everywhere, you could say it is ubiquitous, and is healthy and sanitary if drunk straight from the fruit. Alcohol Nightlife, Siem Reap There is no legal drinking/purchasing age for alcohol, however because of the number of children have been seen on binge drinking adventures, this has become of a concern to the government. In general, Khmers are not what could be described as casual drinkers: the main objective is to get hammered as quickly as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in! The two most popular domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor pronounced “an-CHOR” with a ch sound! and Angkor. Beer Lao and Tiger are popular beers with foreigners. A plethora of other beers include ABC Stout, which is dark and not so bad, in addition to the standard Heineken and Carlsberg.
Cheaper beers include Crown and Leo, whilst Kingdom Beer aims for the premium market with a pilsener and a dark lager. In Phnom Penh some of the foreigner oriented bars have also added harder to find import beers to their menu; the Green Vespa and Garage Bar both now carry a wide selection of English beers. Palm wine and rice wine are available in villages and can be OK at 500-1000 riel for 1 litre bottle. However, some safety concerns have been raised with regard to sanitation, so the local wines may be best avoided. The rice wine is also not actually a wine but a distilled liquor with varied potency so when drinking it pace yourself until you’re sure of its strength.
As a home distilled beverage there is also always the risk of improper distillation leading to methanol poisoning. For a truly Khmer experience, hunt down a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the “X.O.” version, it’s the cheapest legitimate tipple available. Drugs Drugs, including cannabis, are illegal in Cambodia, and penalties can be very severe.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.