New beginnings - a gourmet guide to Cambodia - Cambodia

Where to stay

Knai Bang Chatt A boutique beach hotel in modern Khmer style and with an emphasis on sustainability. Doubles from £239. Phum Thmey, Sangkat Prey Thom, Khan Kep, Kep, 00 855 78 333 684, knaibangchatt.com

Phum Baitang This beautiful five-star luxury-villa resort is set within tranquil rice paddies and lemongrass meadows. It’s a perfect gateway to Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. Doubles from £240. Phum Svaydangkum, Sangkat Svaydangkum, Siem Reap, 00 855 63 961 111, zannierhotels.co

Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor The elegant hotel chain delivers its established level of excellence in Siem Reap. Don’t miss the champagne breakfast, with its elaborate tropical fruit arrangements. Doubles from £255. 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap, 00 855 63 963 888, raffles.com

Royal Sands Koh Rong An idyllic tropical island resort stretching across a 400m-long beach. Perfect for water sports, jungle trekking and island hopping. Doubles from £459. Sok San Beach, Koh Rong Island, Sihanoukville, 00 855 78 888 935, theroyalsandskohrong.com

Six Senses Krabey Island Find paradise on this superb private-island resort, which boasts villas with pools, all set within natural jungle landscape. Take full advantage of the excellent spa and world-class breakfast. Doubles from £523. Koh Krabey Island, Ream Commune, Sihanoukville, 00 855 69 944 888, sixsenses.com

Travel Information

Cambodia is a Southeast Asian nation whose landscape spans low-lying plains, the Mekong Delta, mountains and the Gulf of Thailand coastline. Khmer is the official language. Currency is the Cambodian riel and time is seven hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap take upwards of 12 hours, with one or two stops.

Korean Air
offers flights from London Heathrow to Phnom Penh International with one stop in Seoul. koreanair.com
Qatar Airways flies from London Gatwick to Phnom Penh International with one stop in Doha and one in Seoul. qatarairways.com

Tourism Cambodia
is the official tourist board. Its website is full of helpful information to help you plan your trip. tourismcambodia.org

Where to eat

123 Pig Owner San Thery revives traditional recipes at her restaurant near the Russian Market. Enjoy a ‘Morning Sun’ hibiscus drink and ask for recommendations, as dishes change regularly. Mains from £8. 26 Street 123, Sangkat Tuol Tumpoung 1, Phnom Penh, 00 855 92 226 596

Boat Noodles Much-loved Phnom Penh restaurant found inside a traditional Khmer wooden house. On the menu you’ll find a range of local dishes, including, of course, boat noodles. Mains from £10. House 57, Street Kambol Ket Tip, Phnom Penh, 00 855 11 952 120

Coffee Mondulkiri The perfect refreshing pit stop in the heart of Phnom Penh’s Russian Market. Iced coffee from £1.20. Street 163, Phnom Penh, 00 855 12 540 844, mondulkiri-coffee.com

Kroeung Garden Sample traditional dishes from celebrity chef Luu Meng, served in a modern restaurant with an outdoor area. Mains from £16. 46 corner of Street 352 and Street 57, Phnom Penh, 00 855 77 813 777

Lum Orng Farm-to-table restaurant where a visit begins with a tour of the gardens. Owner-chef Sothea Seng turns fresh produce from the kitchen farm into refined plates. Cooking classes are also available. Mains from £15. Tramneak Street, Siem Reap, 00 855 61 926 562, lumorngrestaurant.com

Num Pang Stall Sixty-nine-year-old Yeoun sets up on the roundabout every day at 4pm. Try the num pang with three types of pork, pickled vegetables and chilli sauce. Sandwiches from £1. Durian Roundabout, Kampot

Pachok Khmer Noodles Owner Sony Cheab and chef Piseth make some of the best num banh chok in the city at this street-food stand. Noodles from £1.20. Corner of Post Office and Shinta Mani Hotel, Siem Reap

Pou Restaurant Chef Mork Mengly serves modern interpretations of traditional dishes at this bright, bustling restaurant. Don’t miss the frog fritters and green curry with duck and rice noodles. From £33. 136 Steung Thmei, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, 00 855 70 716 969, pourestaurant.com

Food Glossary

This famous dish of royal origins comprises egg and fish flavoured with kroeung (see below) and steamed inside a noni leaf
Bird’s nest shrimp
This crunchy dish of shrimp wrapped in fried noodles is said to marry the sea with the sky
Blue swimmer crab
One of the most popular seafoods in Cambodia, popularly eaten stir-fried with Kampot pepper
Boat noodles
A fisherman’s noodle dish made from a bone broth enriched with blood
Rice porridge, similar to Chinese congee, with various toppings
Kampot pepper
PDO-protected pepper variety from the Kampot province, considered some of the best in the world
The generic term for a wide array of spice and herb pastes, which form the foundation of many Cambodian dishes
Num banh chok
Popular noodle dish traditionally eaten for breakfast, containing fermented rice noodles, protein and herbs (num banh chok also refers to the noodles themselves)
Crushed, salted and fermented fish paste that is considered essential for seasoning in Cambodian cuisine
Sang vak
Pounded fermented fish, noodles and seasonal vegetables with lettuce leaves for wrapping

Food and Travel Review

To eat a bowl of num banh chok or ‘Khmer noodles’ is to digest Cambodia’s history. Legacies of war, famine, survival and resourcefulness swirl in its aromatic broth. Mouthfuls of snakehead fish from nearby Tonlé Sap add substance. This lake, the largest body of freshwater in Southeast Asia, provides protein for local people, while its annual flooding brings an abundance of rice, herbs and flowers. Over a breakfast bowl of num banh chok one can choose from a tub bristling with local plants: crisp water-lily stems, snake beans, rice paddy herb, saw leaf, Chinese celery and sweet basil. It is an everyman dish; one of Cambodia’s oldest living recipes preceding the vast Angkor Wat temple complex, built in the early 12th century for the Hindu god Vishnu.

‘If you didn’t eat num banh chok, you didn’t visit Cambodia’, as the saying goes.

The history of Cambodian cuisine has become murky, not least due to the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), which devastated the country through widespread famine and genocide. Two million people (equivalent to 25 per cent of the population) lost their lives. During the regime, those without access to ingredients, electricity to cook or, worse, living in concentration camps had no choice but to reshape what had previously grown into a complex cuisine with multiple influences. During these dark times, the staple meal was bobor, a rice porridge, made thin and watery, with just a few grains. Prior to the regime, the sophisticated Khmer culture produced ceramics, art and coins, and surviving dishes such as ‘boat noodles’, a fisherman’s breakfast of blood and bone broth, show the complexity of the cuisine. Made by reusing and reheating broth with new ingredients, its depth of flavour is accrued over time. It is smooth, sweet and rich, bouncy beef balls hiding within. Older still is bird’s nest shrimp, introduced by 13th-century Chinese traders. A crunchy fried snack served with a peanut dipping sauce, it is devoid of chilli, not introduced to Asia until the Portuguese occupied Goa three centuries later.

Now, cooks are on a mission to recover lost flavours. Ros Rotanak, or ‘Chef Nak’, has been travelling the country for eight years hunting traditional recipes. ‘Cambodians do not have the tradition of writing things down. This is how recipes are lost,’ she explains. Books which did exist were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge days or confined to the libraries of kings, documenting royal cuisine such as amok, a dish of steamed egg and fish inside a noni leaf. Chef Nak seeks the food of the people. ‘Many recipes died with the people and youngsters today are not so interested in learning from those who survived. They want better jobs, better education. Also, with the arrival of fast food in Cambodia, like everywhere, people are busy and they tend to get something quick and easy.’ In 2018 Ros began writing a cookbook to preserve recipes for future generations. ‘It wasn’t easy because we never cook with measurements. People say, “we use a little bit of this, a little bit of that” and they leave out five ingredients.’

Some traditional foods have survived. The fermented rice noodles central to num banh chok have been made in Preah Dak village, north of Siem Reap, since the Khmer Empire. Mom, 40, has been making noodles since she was 17, taking over from her mother. She works with her brother Nhanh, using a traditional pounding machine called a kdeung, resembling an oversized mallet. Two people use their feet to raise the kdeung, while, underneath, Mom moves the dough with her hands, barely looking to see where the kdeung strikes. ‘I am used to the rhythm,’ she explains. Once the dough becomes sticky, they know it’s ready to be extruded into noodles. These are cooked, then cooled. Mom swirls the strands through cold water, where they wave dreamily like angel hair. The slightly sour, springy noodles will be sold at the market. Tomorrow, they will make them again.

‘Essential to the flavour profile of Cambodian food is prahok. A fermented fish paste, it’s made by stamping river fish (commonly catfish) to a paste, leaving it in the sun, then packing it into jars to age, often for years’

At Pou, a bright, modern restaurant in Siem Reap, chef Mork Mengly is pouring green curry sauce over his noodles. Young and ambitious, he wants to promote Cambodian cuisine by combining street-food flavours with those of the jungle meals he ate as a child. The curry uses fresh coconut milk, pea aubergines and purple hyacinth flowers. ‘We use a lot of leaves and flowers in Cambodian cuisine,’ he explains. ‘A lot of aromatic flavours balance our food. You will see them all at the market.’

Indeed, Cambodian markets seem greener than those of surrounding countries. Women squat behind bushels of citrussy m’am, a rice paddy herb, hot (‘holy’) basil and sprays of feathery water mimosa which catch the breeze, their soft young stems good for stir-fries or soups. Pea flowers pop cobalt blue in the midday sun. Roots, too, are important, particularly for kroeung, a fragrant paste which forms a building block of Cambodian cuisine. Chef Luu Meng, president of the Cambodian Chef Federation, considers it so foundational he named his restaurant after it. Kroeung Garden is situated in Sangkat Chakto Mukh, a peaceful, upmarket area of Cambodia’s capital on the banks of the Mekong. ‘There are three types of kroeung: yellow, red and green,’ explains Luu, with yellow being ‘the most important and widely used’. Turmeric, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, garlic and galangal are common ingredients, along with spices such as cardamom, star anise, clove and nutmeg. ‘Every chef has their own recipe,’ says Luu. He supervises staff to make sure the kroeung is perfect before pronouncing it good enough to use. ‘We must preserve the correct methods,’ he says. ‘The Europeans and Chinese have thousands of years of history. People argue about where pizza or pitta bread comes from but we don’t have anything for reference. I want to pass it on.’

Just as essential to the flavour profile of Cambodian food is prahok, an ancient Khmer seasoning devised as a way to preserve protein during leaner times. A fermented fish paste, it’s made by stamping river fish (commonly catfish) to a paste, leaving it in the sun, then packing it into jars to age, often for years. A daunting sight at the market, these buckets of pungent grey sludge add a deeply savoury note to many dishes, dips and seasonings. It is as essential to the cuisine as fish sauce is to the Vietnamese. The well-known Khmer saying ‘no prahok, no salt’ is used to refer to a dish that is under-seasoned or bland.

‘Grills smoke gently next to skewered fish, prawns or squid. Vendors sell bags of deep-fried baby crabs, seasoned with salt and chilli, which are eaten like crisps’

In Kep, a fishing town on the Gulf of Thailand, seafood is prized, particularly blue swimmer crab. At the crab market, 26-year-old fisherman Samnang is hauling his catch onto the slippery jetty, crouching under a ragged beach umbrella. ‘Everyone in this town eats crab,’ he grins. ‘We catch crab, we eat crab, everyone is friends with crab.’ He sets out at 7am, typically spending two days at sea. He will sell the crabs at the market, which only the jetty prevents from tumbling into the water. It’s a thrilling, complex matrix of cramped stalls. The sound of claws clattering on woks is constant, the air thick with smoke. Pots bubble and steam, ready to cook fresh crustacean, which is sold for less than £1. Grills smoke gently next to skewered fish, prawns or squid for customers to choose from. Vendors sell bags of deep-fried baby crabs, seasoned with salt and chilli, which are eaten like crisps. Best of all is stone crab, stir-fried with strings of fresh green Kampot pepper, grown in the surrounding province. Intensely spicy, the dish requires many napkins.

Kampot pepper, considered some of the best in the world, is the first Cambodian product to receive PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Renowned during the French colonial period, when huge volumes were exported to Europe, the vines were ripped out during the Khmer Rouge regime and later regrown by a few farmers who had concealed seeds. La Plantation, run by Nathalie and Guy Porre, is the largest pepper farm and employer in the Kampot region. The couple supports small farmers, buying their product at a high price and exporting it for them in order to maintain quality. Last year, they harvested 26 tonnes of pepper. Native to Kerala, pepper vines grow well in Kampot, thanks to the coastal breezes and quartz in the mountain soil. This ‘terroir’ is considered as important as that of grapes, and the flavour profile of the pepper – citrus, eucalyptus, fruit – prized by chefs around the world. Four types are produced: green strings or ‘drupes’, which may be stripped, cooked and dried to become black peppercorns; mature red peppercorns; and white peppercorns – the exposed seeds of the ripe red pepper. While the drupes are stir-fried or used in soups and stews, the ground black pepper makes a tasty dip mixed with kaffir lime juice, and the white works well in cocktails, adding an almost MSG-like tingle. Young chefs and expats use the pepper to infuse gin, beer and honey.

While Cambodian ingredients have great intensity of flavour, the concept of balance is crucial overall. ‘I love crispy raw vegetables with a dipping sauce that combines sweet, sour and salty flavours,’ says Chef Nak. ‘It represents Cambodian food well.’ Chef San Thery serves a similar dish at her restaurant 123 Pig. Sang vak is fermented fish cooked in banana leaf, lettuce, herbs, noodles and vegetables and served in a basket, to make wraps. ‘This is dark ages cuisine,’ she says. ‘People used whatever vegetables they could find.’ San spends her time visiting provinces, collecting recipes. Having lost her mother to the war, San cooks these dishes to reconnect. ‘This is a 30-metre menu,’ she says. ‘People use what is growing around them. Our cuisine has become local, not regional.’ Chef Nak agrees: ‘Ingredients are different before and after the Khmer Rouge. Forests were cut down; people weren’t able to find ingredients any more. It was common for neighbours to exchange fruit with one another.’

From the 12th-century carvings of rice goddesses and barbecued fish on the walls of Angkor Wat to modern-day chefs pushing the cuisine forward, food is a way of preserving Khmer identity. Cambodia was founded on farming, then torn apart by it when people were forced into agricultural slavery. There’s heightened awareness of food as the glue which holds a culture together. Sugar palm farmer Seourn, a 41-year-old man with leathery hands and a sun-worn face, scales his trees using lengths of bamboo as steps. On his back he carries a container for collecting palm juice and, on his belt, a knife to prune the trees. He leaves at 4am every day to collect the juice for palm wine, vinegar or best of all, sweets. He learnt these skills from his father, who perhaps learnt from his father before him, the calluses on his feet a daily reminder of the country’s past and how it has shaped his present. For Cambodians, food is the conduit by which they negotiate their relationship with their country’s difficult history – and continue to navigate its future.

Words by Helen Grave. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor. They travelled Cambodia courtesy of the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism. tourismcambodia.org

This feature was taken from the December 2020 issue of Food and Travel.

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