Food in Cambodia
Cambodian food as a “cuisine” leaves much to be desired. There are influences from Thailand and Vietnam, and to a lesser degree China, Laos, and even India, but the food is not on a par with any of these places.
You’ll definitely spot the French Colonial influence in the bread, coffee, and occasional bakery. The troubles that have plagued the country for so many years have reduced eating to a matter of necessity and basic survival for most Cambodians, and the food choices and preparation reflect this. Nonetheless, there are still decent restaurants and a few specialties that are worth a try.
Overall the food is like Thai food that has been “de-spiced.” You’ll find curries, rice dishes, noodle bowls, and soups. There are also varieties of meat and vegetable stir-fries and a decent array of fruit. One of the few specialties you will encounter is called an sam chruk, sticky rice filled with bean paste, bean curd, and bits of chopped meat.
Rice (or noodles) forms the centerpiece of most meals. Usually you’ll get the rice mixed with a bit of chopped, stir-fried meat and some leafy vegetables. A bit of mint, chili, or chopped fresh mystery herbs is usually the topper. Be careful of the chopped, fresh stuff or the lightly cooked leafy stuff; there is no guarantee any of it is safe to eat. Remember to stick with well-cooked or seriously pickled items, especially outside of Phnom Penh and perhaps Siem Reap (Angkor Wat).
Any fish you find, away from the small stretch of coast, is likely to be of the freshwater variety out of the Tonle Sap. Fish will be either stir-fried, deep fried, or salted. You may encounter barbequed shrimp – quite nice if you can get it.
There are also items most Westerners find less than appetizing – duck eggs served just before they hatch (pong tea kon), or fried bugs, generally cicadas (chong roet).
If you spend time in Phnom Penh you’ll be able to sample a variety of international cuisine – decent quality and generally low prices. The best place to find “Cambodian” specialties is to sample the wares of the street vendors. For $1-$2 you can have a decent meal, but be sure the food is fresh, hot, and served in clean conditions by clean and healthy-looking people.
Finally, if you want cheap and predictable, find the nearest backpacker’s hostel or ghetto and you’ll be able to get pizza, pancakes, and American breakfasts. Don’t count on finding any of the ubiquitous fast food places – at least not the Western ones!
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