Embarking on a journey to explore the culinary treasures of a country
is an adventure in itself. While the well-known Asian cuisines from
Japanese to Thai food have graced dining tables worldwide, there is
still an undiscovered gem waiting to be savoured: Cambodian cuisine.
A taste of Cambodia
Kongleaphy Keam is the owner and chef of Roleque, a fine-dining restaurant in Siem Reap, that specialises in the creative fusion of Cambodian cuisine and art.
Why Cambodian cuisine is relatively unknown is because many people do
not know Cambodia, said chef Kongleaphy Keam, who owns Roleque
(pronounced: roll-irk), a Cambodian fine dining restaurant in Siem Reap.
“Some of my friends’ families in the US still think that Cambodia is an
To break this notion, Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism launched a
regional food map and pocket food guide in March identifying local food
distinctive to each province.
According to Sovannroath Aing, deputy director-general of Ministry of
Tourism’s general department of tourism development and international
cooperation, food tourism is an attractive product as it connects people to Cambodian history, culture and tradition.
Our food has its own taste and uniqueness. Through the promotion, we are also inviting tourists to visit the places.
“Our food has its own taste and uniqueness. Through the promotion, we
are also inviting tourists to visit the places,” he told Travel Weekly
Asia, suggesting that they embark on food trails in the central,
northern and coastal regions, and Tonle Sap.
In Siem Reap, the home of 12th-century Angkor Wat, native dish nom banh chok
features locally made rice vermicelli served in yellow curry paste with
'mud fish' sourced from local rivers. Another specialty is prahok ktis, a unique fermented fish and minced pork dipping sauce.
Likewise, in Battambang, a province known for its colonial architecture, mi kota, a stir-fried soy sauce noodle creation by the Kota indigenous people, pairs perfectly with sang vak or grilled fermented fish.
A naturally delightful food
Fish amok, a well-known Cambodian dish, is a fragrant steamed fish stew cooked with coconut milk, shrimp paste, egg, and fish sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/TOMARILLO
Most, if not all of Cambodian dishes, have its roots in peasantry,
which is reflected in the use of ingredients largely found in villages
or rivers to whip up wholesome soups, stir fries, grilled seafood or
meat and sauces.
“Freshwater fish (around 475 species in Cambodia), native vegetables,
herbs and spices, render a complex taste, because of the Mekong, Tonle
Sap and rich nature,” said Keam.
An essential element found in most Cambodian dishes is Kroeung Khmer, a ubiquitous Cambodian spice paste crafted from fresh turmeric and herbs. Additionally, somlor machu, a sour soup, is made with seasonal fish and vegetables, a staple on dinner tables.
“The soup’s sour base can be made with vinegar, but locals prefer to
use lime or kaffir lime, unripe mango, tamarind, its leaves or local
fruits such as Java cola, bilimbi and garcinia loureiroi to make the base,” he said.
It creates an intricate flavour, said Kongleaphy, adding that
Cambodian foods “not only fill stomachs”, but are also nutritional.
Keam further emphasises that Cambodian cuisine remains true to
its 'natural' and 'authentic' form, distinct from regional dishes that
may have been altered to cater to the tastes of younger generations or
Popularising Khmer cuisine
Keam recommends a powerful strategy to position Cambodia as a
standalone destination rather than being overshadowed as a "bundled
destination" with neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam. The food map, he
believes, is a promising starting point in this endeavour.
Drawing inspiration from Thailand's success in food tourism,
Keam points out how the Tourism Authority of Thailand has
effectively partnered with local and international food reviewers like
Wongnai and Michelin Guide. This cooperative effort has earned accolades
for fine dining restaurants, street vendors in Thailand, and a few
restaurants in Vietnam.
Similar to the global popularity achieved by Korean food through the
explosion of K-pop culture, art, and entertainment can play a pivotal
role in attracting global attention to Cambodia’s food scene.
One compelling example of the power of influence comes from a Thai
singer named Milli, whose onstage consumption of mango sticky rice at
California's Coachella Festival in 2022 sparked a worldwide craze for
the dish, as noted by Keam.
Telling a story, serving up a destination
Lok lak, also known as shaking beef, is a beef dish served with lettuce and tomatoes. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/lounom
The only way foreigners might have heard of dishes like prahok, somlor machu, nom banh chok and lok lak (a stir fried spicy beef or chicken dish) is if they have visited or lived in Cambodia.
“The taste, freshness of the vegetables, the medicinal benefit of the
dish and its story would make anyone love it,” Keam said.
As a restaurant owner and chef, he said the task is to “make the food
look familiar” to outsiders in a creative way without compromising its
In keeping to the name of his restaurant, which means “memory”, the
dishes which are crafted are based on the recollection of his mother’s
cooking from childhood days.
Keam does not adjust the taste or spice for patrons as they are there to savour authentic Cambodian dishes.
“We just make the food look more pleasing to the eye. Food can tell a
lot about the life and culture [of a society] as it is a form of art
that is passed on from generation to generation,” he added.