To be honest, I have never thought about Khmer food or Cambodian cuisine until I actually got to Cambodia. I was prepared to learn all about it during our time here. Both fortunately and unfortunately, there wasn’t much to learn about. After being spoiled in Taiwan and Vietnam, Khmer food doesn’t quite compare in terms of variety or originality. That didn’t stop us from giving things a try.
One of the major national culinary traditions in Cambodia, fish amok is a fish curry cooked in banana leaf. It almost resembles a big cupcake, where the banana leaf is the cupcake liner with the fish curry inside. Each family has their own version of the recipe used for the curry. Common ingredients include coconut cream and galangal.
A scoop of amok tasted like fish filet heavily flavoured with curry (but not in a soup of curry). I don’t love fish, nor do I love curry, so amok was only so-so for me. The fish dishes that I do like are ones where the seasoning enhances the natural flavour of the fish, as opposed to masking it, which I how I feel about fish amok. The portion of fish amok served was also usually small, certainly not enough to fill our bellies by itself. Having said that, I’m sure many other people out there love fish amok, and such a staple in Cambodian cuisine at least deserves a try.
Beef Lok Lak
Each plate of beef lok lak had a bed of vegetables like lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers that were topped with stir-fried beef. This might sound like boring old stir-fry with fresh vegetables, but there was something unique about it. The dish came with lime juice and black pepper, both meant to be dipping sauces for the beef, before it’s consumed with rice.
It was not the most memorable dish, but always a good choice for a guaranteed full belly.
I will be honest and say that I don’t know enough about curry to distinguish a Khmer curry from an Indian curry or a Thai curry. Sure, I can tell the difference between a red curry vs. a green curry based on the colour, but taste-wise, they all taste like curry to me. We had Khmer curry a few times in Cambodia, and there was nothing really out of the ordinary – thick, heavy curry soup with meat and vegetables.
The one interesting experience we had with Khmer curry was at one restaurant, where the curry was not served with its usual plate of rice on the side, but noodles. Plus some fresh veggies like bean sprouts and cucumbers cut into small pieces. Then we had the choice of adding the side ingredients (noodles and veggies) to the curry as we liked. It was surprisingly good, and fun, too!
We didn’t expect to drink a lot of fruit smoothies in Cambodia like we did in Vietnam, and the trend didn’t start until Siem Reap. But once we found a fruit smoothie cart with a very friendly lady who cut fruits and made fresh smoothies on the spot for $1, we were hooked. Starting with mango, alternating with banana, and eventually getting a mix of mango and banana. I’m pretty sure she knew us by the third day.
While she didn’t make the best smoothies on earth, she was consistent and she appreciated our loyalty. Forget loyalty programs, there was no better example than our daily visits to the fruit smoothie lady. The first day was just a regular smoothie. By the end of the week, she would make extra smoothie, fill the cup until it was full, hand it over to us to drink some, then top up again with the remaining extra smoothie. So essentially we got one and a half smoothies for the price of one. That’s a better return in a shorter time than any other loyalty program that I have ever officially signed up for.
Outside of these dishes, and the amazing beach BBQ in Sihanoukville and Koh Rong, we ate Thai, Viet, or Chinese-style dishes. Of course, there was the omnipresent Angkor or Anchor beers (draft beers go as low as 50 cents). Price per dish in Cambodia was also higher than its neighbouring countries, and snacks were more expensive. So for most of our days, we stuck to eating one main, filling dish during meal times only.