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Khmer cuisine (Khmer: សិល្បៈខាងធ្វើម្ហូបខ្មែរ) or, more generally, Cambodian cuisine, is the traditional cuisine of the people of Cambodia. Average meals typically consists of more than one dish and ideally contrasts flavours, textures and temperatures within the meal using plenty of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments.
The staple food for Cambodians is rice. Today rice is consumed by most Cambodians daily and with all meals, using a great number of cooking styles and techniques. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous Khmer rice, from the fragrant jasmine-scented malis rice to countless types of wild, brown and sticky rice. Sticky rice is most often consumed as a dessert, often with slices of tropical fruit like mango or durian and coconut milk.
Rice is eaten throughout the day in the form of street-side snacks, such as deep-fried rice cakes with chives and spinach, for breakfast, as in Cambodia's famous rice noodle soup kuyteav or rice porridge, and in many desserts. Plain white rice is served with nearly every family meal, typically served with grilled freshwater fish, a samlor or soup, and an assortment of seasonal herbs, salad leaves and vegetables.
History and influences
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Water, rice and freshwater fish exert the most profound influences on Khmer cuisine. The Mekong river, the twelfth longest in the world cuts through the very heart of Cambodia. The capital Phnom Penh is on its riverbank, at the junction where two other rivers meet: the Tonle Sap and Bassac. The Tonle Sap river connects the Mekong with the Tonle Sap lake, or Great Lake, which acts as a liquid heart and natural reservoir for the entire Mekong river system, regulating the flow of huge volumes of water, and allowing the safe passage of an astonishing number of freshwater fish. The lake itself is believed to have more fish than any other in the world and ranks second only to the Amazon river in biodiversity.
When the rainy season begins at the start of the Khmer New Year, the region becomes inundated with monsoonal rain and Cambodia turns into a vast ocean of emerald rice-paddies. The geographical setting of wetlands (Cambodia ranks second to Bangladesh for the most amount of wetland in Asia) and floodplains explains why water, and hence fish and rice (which grow in water) are such an integral component to the cuisine. Many dishes, in particular the samlors, have a pond-like appearance, and are often loaded with reed-like plants, leaves and vegetables, mirroring the surrounding landscape. Dipping sauces tend to be quite watery, as are most Cambodian curries.
In 2013 Khmer cuisine shares many commonalities with the food of neighboring Thailand—although, less chilli, sugar and coconut cream are used for flavor—and of neighboring Vietnam, with which it shares and adopts many common dishes, as well as a colonial history, as both formed part of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia. It has drawn upon influences from the cuisines of China and France, powerful players in Cambodian history. The Chinese began arriving in the 13th century, but Chinese migration accelerated during the French period. Curry dishes, known as kari (in Khmer, ការី) show a trace of cultural influence from India. The many variations of rice noodles show the influences from Chinese cuisine. Preserved lemons are another unusual ingredient not commonly found in the cooking of Cambodia's neighbours; it is used in some Khmer dishes to enhance the sourness. The Portuguese and Spanish also had considerable influence in Cambodian affairs in the 16th century, introducing chilli and peanuts into Asia from the New World. However, chilli never gained the same status or prominence as it did with the cuisines of neighboring Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. Even today very few recipes include chilli.
One legacy of French, the baguette - known as nom pang in Khmer - is ubiquitous in all parts of Cambodia today. Ironically, as dependent as Cambodia is on rice for food and its identity, Cambodians are also said to eat more bread than any other people in Asia. Cambodians often eat bread with pâté, tinned sardines or eggs. One of these with a cup of strong coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, is an example of a common Cambodian breakfast. Freshly buttered baguettes can be made into sandwiches (also called nom pang) and may be stuffed with slices of ham or any number of grilled meats, with Kampot pepper, similar to Vietnamese banh mi. The French also introduced beer, butter, pate, coffee, chocolate, onions, carrots, broccoli, potatoes and many other types of non-native produce to Southeast Asia.
Traditionally, Cambodians eat their meals with at least three or four dishes. A meal will usually include a soup, or samlor, served alongside the main courses. Each individual dish will be either sweet, sour, salty or bitter in taste. Chilli (fresh, pickled or dried) and chilli sauce is served on the side and left up to individual diners and to their taste. In this way Cambodians ensure that they get a bit of every flavor to satisfy their palates.
A common ingredient, almost a national institution, is a pungent type of fermented fish paste used in many dishes, a distinctive flavoring known as prahok (ប្រហុក). It's an acquired taste for most Westerners and is an integral part of Khmer cuisine. It is included in many dishes or used as a dipping sauce. The liberal use of prahok, which adds a salty tang to many dishes, is a characteristic which distinguishes Khmer cuisine from that of its neighbours. Prahok can be prepared many ways and eaten as a dish on its own right. Prahok jien (ប្រហុកចៀន) is fried and usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can be eaten with dips, vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice. Prahok gop or prahok ang (ប្រហុកកប់) or (ប្រហុកអាំង) is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under a fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
When prahok is not used, kapǐ (កាពិ), a kind of fermented shrimp paste, is used instead. Khmer cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups and stir-fried dishes, and as a dipping sauce.
Black pepper is the preferred choice when heat is wanted in a dish; it is used in stir fries, soups, marinades for grilled meats, and dipping sauces. Pepper has a long history in Cambodia, having been grown since at least the 13th century, while the pungent, aromatic variety from Kampot province (bordering Vietnam's Ha Tien province and the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and the jungle-clad Elephant Mountains to the north) was once Cambodia's chief export from the late 1800s up till the 1960s.
Kampot pepper was once known as the King of Peppers, revered by gourmands worldwide for its floral and eucalyptus notes, its heady aroma, its musky heat, and its medicinal properties. Before the 1970s, Kampot pepper was used in all French restaurants for the classic dish steak au poivre. Today, the pepper industry is being revitalised and, since acquiring protected Geographic Indication status in 2008 (which gives it the same special status as Champagne in France), people can purchase Kampot pepper online in many parts of the world, allowing a new generation of gourmands to rediscover one of the world's most elusive and prestigious spices.
Jungle cardamom, or wild cardamom, grows in the aptly named Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country, bordering the Gulf of Thailand coast to the south and Trat province in Thailand to the west. These vast mountains form the last remaining area of intact virgin rainforest in Southeast Asia and harbour extensive mangrove forests, elephants, tigers, Siamese crocodiles and other rare and endangered species, and few people live in this area. Locals use cardamom medicinally and in certain samlors, using the root of the plant as well as the pod. Turmeric (Khmer: រមៀត) is grown in Battambang province and is a common ingredient in many curry powders, soups and rice dishes. Saffron is also esteemed in local folk medicine as a treatment for many ailments, especially skin problems.
Tamarind is commonly employed as a soup base for dishes such as samlar machu. Star anise is a must when caramelizing meat in palm sugar like pork in the dish known as pak lov. Turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are essential spices in Khmer cooking, Khmer stews, and nearly all curries.
From India, by way of Java, Cambodians have been taught the art of blending spices into a paste using many ingredients like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. Other native ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves are added to this mix to make a distinctive and complex spice blend called "kroeung." Other ingredients for kroeung used by Khmers in America are lemongrass, turmeric powder, garlic, prahok, and lemon leaf. This is an important aromatic paste commonly used in Cambodian cooking.
Many vegetables used in Khmer cuisine are also used in Chinese cuisine. Vegetables such as winter melon, bitter melon, luffa, water spinach and yardlong beans can be found in soups and stews. Oriental squash can be stewed, stir fried or sweetened and steamed with coconut milk as a dessert. Vegetables like mushrooms, cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots, fresh ginger, kai-lan ("Chinese kale"), snow peas, and bok choy are commonly used in many stir fry dishes. Together these stir fry dishes are known by the generic term chhar (ឆា). Banana blossoms are sliced and added to some noodle dishes like nom banh chok.
Fruits in Cambodia are so popular that they have their own royal court. The durian is considered the "king," the mangosteen the "queen," sapodilla the "prince" and the milk fruit (phlai teuk doh ko) the "princess." Other popular fruits include the jan fruit, kuy fruit, romduol, pineapple, star apple, rose apple, coconut, palmyra fruit, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, mango and rambutan. Although fruits are usually considered desserts, some such as ripe mangoes, watermelon, and pineapples are eaten commonly with heavily salted fish with plain rice. Fruits are also made into beverages called tuk krolok (ទឹកក្រឡុក), mostly shakes. Popular fruits for shakes are durian, mangoes, bananas.
Fish and meat
As the country has an extensive network of waterways, freshwater fish plays a large part in the diet of most Cambodians, making its way into many recipes. Daily fresh catches come from the Mekong River, Bassac River and the vast Tonlé Sap. Fish is far more common than meat in Khmer cuisine and fish forms 60% of the Cambodian intake of proteins. Prahok itself is based on fish. Many of the fish eaten in Cambodia are freshwater fish from the Tonlé Sap or from the Mekong. Dried salted fish known as trei ngeat (ត្រីងៀត) are a favourite with plain rice porridge. The popular Khmer dish called amok uses a kind of catfish steamed in a savoury coconut-based curry. The small fish known as Trey Dang Dau are very common and are often eaten deep-fried.
While freshwater fish is the most commonly used meat in the Cambodian diet, pork and chicken are also popular. Though not as common as in neighbouring Vietnam, vegetarian food is a part of Khmer cuisine and often favoured by more observant Buddhists.
Pork is quite popular in making sweet Khmer sausages known as twah ko (ត្វារគោ). Beef and chicken are stewed, grilled or stir fried. Seafood includes an array of shellfish such as clams, cockles, crayfish, shrimp and squid. Lobsters are not commonly eaten because of their price, but middle-class and rich Cambodians enjoy eating them at Sihanoukville. Duck roasted in Chinese char siu style is popular during festivals. More unusual varieties of meat include frog, turtle, and arthropods (including tarantulas); these are difficult to find in Khmer cuisine abroad but are used in everyday dishes in Cambodia.
Many elements of Cambodian noodle dishes were inspired by Chinese and Vietnamese cooking despite maintaining a distinct Khmer variation. Prahok is never used with noodle dishes. Rice stick noodles are used in mee katang (មីកាតាំង), which is a Cambodian variation of chǎo fěn with gravy. Unlike the Chinese styled chǎo fěn, the noodles are plated under the stir fry beef and vegetables and topped off with scrambled eggs. Burmese style noodles (មីកុឡា, Mee Kola) is a vegetarian dish made from thin rice stick noodles, steamed and cooked with soy sauce and garlic chives. This is served with pickled vegetables Jroak (ជ្រក់), julienned eggs, and sweet garlic fish sauce (which is actually not vegetarian) garnished with crushed peanuts. Mi Cha (មីឆា) is stir fried egg noodles.
- Amok trey (អាម៉ុកត្រី) is probably Cambodia's most well-known dish amongst visitors; there are similar dishes found in neighboring countries. Freshwater fish fillet (commonly snakehead fish, or Mekong catfish) is covered with an aromatic kroeung (pounded shallots, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime), roasted crushed peanuts, coconut milk, and egg and then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until it achieves a mousse-like texture. Unlike the Thai, Lao and Malaysian versions of the same dish, it is not intended to be spicy but rather fragrant, zesty and flavorful.
- Ansom chek (អន្សមចេក) is cylindrical rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and filled with bananas (sweet). There is a savoury version filled with pork and mung bean paste called ansom chrook (អន្សមជ្រូក).
- Babor (បបរ), derived from the standard Chinese congee, this quintessential breakfast dish has many regional Cambodian incarnations. A type of porridge made with white rice, plain or with a chicken or pork broth, and served with fresh bean sprouts, caramelised garlic oil, green onions, omelette, fried breadsticks or dried fish from the Tonle Sap (trey ngeat). Babor pray is the name for the common marketplace dish of salted dried fish with rice porridge.
- Kuy teav (គុយទាវ): In the Khmer language, kuyteav refers to the dish and the rice noodles themselves. This traditional pork broth-based rice noodle soup dish is a popular breakfast dish in Cambodia and is popular in neighbouring countries and in countries that have a large Khmer population. Originally developed by Cambodians of Chinese descent, it is always served with the garnishes of lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, sawtooth coriander, black Kampot pepper, lime juice, and caramelised garlic oil. Kuyteav may be served in one of two ways, with all the ingredients in the soup, or with the soup on the side. Both versions have the same ingredients and allow the diner to control the balance of flavours, temperatures and textures. The Phnom Penh version of kuyteav (called hu tieu Nam Vang by the Vietnamese) is the most extravagant, often containing some or all of the following toppings: pork belly, ground pork, congealed pig blood, chopped pork offal such as intestine, heart, liver and lung, roasted duck, Mekong river prawns, fish cake and squid. Modern versions of kuyteav featuring beef, chicken, or seafood (rather than the original pork-based broth) have evolved recently, but the plethora of garnishes that distinguish kuyteav remain the same.
- Bai chha (បាយឆា) is a Khmer variation of fried rice which includes Chinese sausages, garlic, soy sauce, and herbs, usually eaten with pork.
- Banh Chao (បាញ់ឆែវ) is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese dish bánh xèo.
- Ban hawy (បាញ់ហយ): The Khmer version of the Vietnamese dish banh hoi.
- Bok L'hong (បុកល្ហុង), Khmer green papaya salad, pounded in a mortar and pestle. Related to Laotian Tam mak hoong, the salad may include the herb kantrop, Asian basil, string beans, roasted peanuts, cherry tomatoes, salted preserved small crabs, smoked or dried fish, and chili peppers. Mixed with a savory dressing of lime juice, fish sauce or prahok.
- Kdam Chha Mrich Kchei - ក្តាមឆាម្រេចខ្ជី A regional specialty from Kep province that features freshly caught crab from the Gulf of Thailand, sauteed with young garlic and lashings of green Kampot peppercorn.
- Chien Chuon (Khmer: ចៀនជួន) - Fish (or occasionally meat) fried with ginger and fermented soy beans, often garnished with peppers, green onions or cilantro.
- Chruok svay (ជ្រក់ស្វាយ) - Unripe julienned mango salad flavored with fish sauce and peppers. Usually served as a side dish with fried or baked fish and rice.
- Kralan (ក្រឡាន) - A cake (nom) made from a mixture of rice with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk, palm sugar and sometimes sesame, all steamed in a pole of bamboo that gets slowly roasted over charcoal.
- Lok Lak (ឡុកឡាក់) - Stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions, served on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes and dipped in a sauce consisting of lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper (tek merec). It is the Cambodian rendition of the Vietnamese dish Bò lúc lắc, which means "shaking beef" in Vietnamese. Regional variants include lok lak Americain, found in bistro menus in Phnom Penh, distinguished by the addition of French fries (rather than rice) and a fried egg sunny side up.
- Loht Chha are Cambodian thick short noodles, with added eggs and chicken, eaten mainly with fish sauce.
- Mee Ketang (មីកាតាំង): Wide rice noodles in an oyster sauce typically stir fried with eggs, baby corn, carrots, Chinese kale (kai-lan), mushrooms and a choice of meat, usually beef. The name of the dish translates literally as Cantonese-style noodles in Khmer, revealing its origin among the early Cantonese community in Cambodia, while also being similar to the Thai dish rad na.
- Mee M'poang are crispy yellow noodles served under a sauce of eggs, carrots, kai-lan, bok choy and a meat.
- Ngam nguv is a chicken soup flavored with whole preserved lemons.
- Chha Kh'nhei (ឆាខ្ញី) - A spicy stir fry (chhar) of meat, usually chicken, eel or frog flavoured with julienned gingeroot, black Kampot pepper, garlic, soy and sometimes fresh jalapeños or fresh peppers, for extra heat.
- Num banh chok: A well-known and beloved Cambodian dish found at streetside vendors, restaurants, produce markets (psahs) such as the Psah Thom Thmey (Central Market, Phnom Penh) and in shophouses. In English it's often simply called simply Khmer noodles, owing to its ubiquity across the country. Nom ban chok is a typical breakfast food and was originally a regional speciality from Kampot province, consisting of noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime. Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower, cucumbers and other greens are heaped on top by the diner. There is also a red curry version that is usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities (see Samlor kari).
- Nom Lote: A green dessert made from rice flour in a liquid of coconut, milk, water and sugar.
- Noum Yip: yellow star-like dessert made of egg yolk, flour, and sugar.
- Naem (Khmer: ណែម): A Khmer adoption of the Vietnamese fresh rolls served with teuk trei dipping sauce.
- Pleah sach ko (ភ្លាសាច់គោ): Lime and prahok-cured beef salad, sometimes also including beef tripe, tossed with thinly sliced purple Asian shallots, finely shaved radish, crushed roasted peanuts and fresh herbs such as mint and basil. Sometimes known as Cambodian beef ceviche, it is very popular at wedding and special occasions.
- Samlar kari (សម្លការី) is a traditional wedding and celebration dish, features coconut chicken curry gently spiced with paprika, and with a soupy consistency, often cooked with sweet potatoes, julienned onion, snake beans and bamboo shoot. The soup is also used as a dipping sauce for fresh baguettes, while nom ban chok samlor kari is often served for breakfast the next day, featuring the same ingredients to make nom ban chok but using the samlor kari broth instead of the traditional turmeric and fish-based broth that goes into making nom ban chok.
- Samlar machu (សម្លម្ជូរ) actually denotes an entire class of samlor, whereby the dominant flavour is an aromatic, citrusy tartness, and there are many different versions. Of all the primary flavours (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, umami), Khmers are most fond of sourness, almost every town or province has its own unique version of samlor machu including samlor machu kroeung (featuring kroeung paste, turmeric, morning glory, coriander, stewed beef ribs and tripe), samlor machu Khmer Krom (featuring tomato, pineapple, catfish, lotus root and holy basil) and samlor machu Siem Reap (containing bamboo shoot and tiny freshwater shrimp). The sourness and citrus flavour can come from prahok, tamarind, lemongrass, kaffir lime, lime juice, or herbs like lemon basil. It is cognate with the Vietnamese sour soup canh chua.
- Khar (ខ ឬសម្លខ): Braised pork or chicken and egg stew flavored in caramelized palm sugar, fish sauce and black Kampot pepper. It may contain tofu or bamboo shoots and often substitutes quail eggs for chicken eggs. A typical Khmer Krom dish, khor is similar to the Vietnamese dish of Thịt Kho and the Filipino dish called humba.
- Sankya Lapov (សង់ខ្យាល្ពៅ): A dessert made of pumpkin and coconut flan.
- Yao hon or yaohon (យ៉ៅហន): A banquet-style hot pot for dipping beef, shrimp, spinach, dill, napa cabbage, rice noodles and mushrooms. It is similar to the Japanese sukiyaki, however, it is derived from the Chinese hot pot.
- Noum pang chen (literally Chinese bread): Spring onion bread often referred as Chinese pizza. It combines Chinese and French style foods. It is flat and baked and fried simultaneously rather than simply being fried like its Chinese counterpart.
- Samlor Kako (Khmer: សម្លកកូរ): Traditional dish soup of Cambodia. It's also considered as one of Cambodian's national dish.
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- de Monteiro, Longteine; Neustadt, Katherine (1998-11-01), The Elephant Walk Cookbook: The Exciting World of Cambodian Cuisine from the Nationally Acclaimed Restaurant, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-395-89253-4. *The Elephant Walk Cookbook is the best-known English-language reference on Cambodian cuisine, and has been an important cultural record, as many of the more elaborate recipes died out in Cambodia following the communist takeover, and have been revived based on The Elephant Walk Cookbook.