In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region and brought
new foods from both Europe as well as the Americas through trading. Few of these
new foods made a significant change, but all were added to dishes and influenced
the food in one way or another. From the Americas came maize (corn), potatoes, chili
peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. From Europe came breads, pastries,
cakes, and some dairy products, including butter and cheese. Unlike many neighbors,
these outside influences at first didn't make much of an impact; in fact chili
pepper became a common ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes, but the
Cambodians rarely use it in great quantities. The greatest changes that
occurred came under the watch of the French in the mid-1800s
when they colonized Cambodia and introduced the baguette, which is still very common
in Cambodia food today.
In more recent times, Cambodia has added new foods and
food services to their culture, but these recent additions haven't altered the
cuisine, but rather have only added to it. Frozen foods, fast foods, and "ethnic"
restaurants are growing in popularity, but these additions are still primarily limited
to the capital and other tourist destinations, like Siam Reap, near Angkor Wat.
Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Prahok: not a staple in the true sense, prahok
is a fish paste used in many local dishes, but rarely with noodle dishes
Rice: rice is usually cooked and served as sticky rice and accompanies
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Amok Trey: the national dish is fish with shallots, garlic,
and lemongrass steamed in banana leaves
Bobor: rice porridge served with fish and ginger
Kyteow: pork broth soup with rice noodles commonly served
Mee Katang: noodles with stir fry and scrambled eggs
Nom Ban Chok: rice noodles served with fish curry and
vegetables is a common breakfast food
Twah Ko: pork sausage; many varieties exist
Dining in Cambodia has few steadfast rules, as long as
you respect your elders. However, learning how to use chopsticks properly when needed
can be a physical challenge for many not used to them.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to eat at a local's house be sure to bring
a small gift to show your appreciation; fruit or pastries are good choices. Try
to arrive on time when meeting anyone from Cambodia for
any reason and remove your shoes before entering the house or restaurant if others
have done so before you. Greet everyone upon arrival, beginning with the elders
and wait to be shown a seat as elders are generally seated first and your host may
show you to a pre-assigned seat.
As you sit down you'll most likely be greeted by chopsticks and little else.
Sometimes, especially in restaurants catered to foreigners, a fork, spoon, and knife
will be offered, but in homes or local restaurants you'll only get chopsticks
along with perhaps a spoon. The chopsticks are obviously for eating (never place
these sticking up in the rice, it's a sign of death) and the spoon is for the
soup. If you have a fork and spoon be sure to hold the spoon in the right hand and
eat from that as the fork should be used to push food onto the spoon.
When the meal arrives, the dishes are placed in the middle of the table; serving
and eating begin in order of honor (and men are served first, then women) so don't
begin until you're directed to do so by your host. If serving yourself, be sure
to never touch the serving spoon to your plate as this is considered unhygienic.
Among the dishes will probably be a soup and a starch, typically rice. These dishes,
as well as anything served in a bowl should be eaten by bringing the bowl up to
your mouth. In order to accomplish this you are expected to have both hands on the
table at all times, even having your elbows on the table is acceptable in most situations.
When you are finished eating, be sure to finish all the food on your plate and in
your bowl as leaving any food behind is considered wasteful and rude. Once the food
is done, place your chopsticks together on top of your rice bowl or on the chopstick
rest next to your plate if you have one. If you have a fork, spoon, and knife place
these together on the plate to indicate that you have finished eating.
If you are dining in a restaurant you may have to go to the register to get and
pay for your bill as servers will rarely bring a bill to your table as that is considered
rude. In restaurants catered to tourists a service charge of about 10% is usually
included. If no service charge is included leave about 5-10% of the bill.
Celebrations & Events
Few holidays or celebrations in Cambodia have specific
foods attached to them; however there are a few traditional foods that are often
served on special occasions, most particularly weddings, anniversaries, and other
life changing events. These events almost always serve a dish called samlor kari,
which is a soup-like dish consisting of a coconut curry base and filled with chicken,
sweet potatoes, onions, beans, and bamboo shoots.
What is commonly referred to in Europe and
North America as "Thai tea" is commonly known and drank in
Cambodia, but in Cambodia it's just called tea. This reddish tea
is mixed with sweetened condensed milk and served over ice. Other local favorites
include coconut milk and local juices. Coffee, soft drinks, and milk are also widely
When drinking alcohol in Cambodia the drink of choice is
beer and there are two local brews worth a try if you want to join in: Angkor and
Anchor (pronounced with a "ch" sound). Popular international brands are
also available. Another local drink for the true cultural aficionado to try is called
"Golden Muscle Wine," which is distilled with deer antlers and herbs and
usually mixed with water to cut the strong taste. Hard liquors and wine are tougher
to find unless you're in a nice hotel or restaurant catered to tourists. Whiskey
is the exception to this rule as the beverage is oddly popular in Cambodia.
The tap water in Cambodia should not be consumed. Be sure
to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads
and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those
foods as well.