Cambodia’s magnificent temples in Siem Reap and the surrounding area attract millions of tourists every year. Since a typical visit to Siem Reap is usually heavily focused on visiting multiple temples over the course of a few days, it can be easy to miss out on the opportunity to learn about everyday life in Cambodia today. While most of our time in Cambodia was spent exploring numerous temples by tuk tuk, we also set aside some time to learn about Cambodian food and the role it plays in shaping Cambodia’s present-day food culture. A few prominent themes started to emerge as we began our deep dive into the Cambodian food scene.
The heat: Siem Reap experiences warm temperatures throughout the year with average highs never falling below 30°C (86°F). Interestingly, even with these high temperatures, the locals still reach for steaming hot soups served alongside large portions of hot white rice. The idea of consuming cool or room temperature dishes on a hot day as a way to cool the body is not part of traditional Cambodian cuisine. As for the spice factor, multiple Cambodians joked that their traditional local food is not nearly as spicy as the food that you’ll find across the border in Thailand.
The Khmer amok below is one of Cambodian’s most common dishes. It usually contains sautéed onion, shallot and spinach leaves along with coconut milk, scrambled egg, white fish and fresh red curry paste. It’s commonly served in a banana leaf basket.
The food hierarchy: White rice is viewed as a key source of energy and is central to all dishes, accounting for about two-thirds of the meal. Don’t expect to find many vegetarians or vegans in Cambodia. Meat and fish are consumed with all meals, including breakfast, but these animal proteins are usually consumed in small portions and are viewed as an accessory to the rest of the meal. From the perspective of a Cambodian food hierarchy, rice would sit at the top, followed by an array of seasonal vegetables. Meat and fish would land at the bottom of the food chain followed by dairy products. As is the case in most Asian cultures, dairy is practically nonexistent, except as an ingredient in imported consumer packaged goods.
Coconut is king: Coconut milk is central to most Cambodian soups and curries. If you’re looking for a non-dairy milk alternative for your cereal or coffee, don’t hesitate to ask for a small quantity of coconut milk. Mix just a few tablespoons of coconut milk with cold water until a desired consistency and flavor is reached. And voila! You’ll have a delicious, unprocessed, plant-based milk alternative. In addition, fresh coconut milk is central to most Cambodia desserts. Even though dessert portions are small and the sweetness level is muted, Cambodians prefer that their coconut-based sago (tapioca) dessert soups are served piping hot, even on a 95°F day!
Hot, sticky coconut rice and banana wrapped in banana leaves
Banana sago (tapioca) with coconut milk, also served hot