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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Cambodia

Historic Diet

Cambodian Food - Seafood

Cambodia has always had a large number of plants and animals on its land and many of these plants and animals were the base of the people's historic diet. Some of these foods are still popular today and have spread from the region to other parts of the world, including the orange. However, most of the foods arrived with settlers and later with traders.

Although the orange is indigenous to Southeast Asia, other popular foods from the south, north, and west quickly arrived with the earliest settlers, including bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, kampot peppers, durian, mangosteen, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and spices including cardamom. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present in large numbers. The largest, such as elephants and tigers were never used as food sources, but other mammals, like water buffalo and boar were used for food. Sea life made up and still makes up a larger proportion of the diet when it comes to protein; trey dang dau, carp, catfish, and others are among the most popular fish, however saltwater fish, including mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab also made up a part of the historic diet.

Culinary Influences

Cambodian Food - Amok fish soup
Amok fish soup

Cambodia's cuisine is similar to that of some neighboring countries, but there are some striking differences that make the cuisine quite unique relative to neighbors. Despite these significant changes, many of the influences are the same, what is different is to what degree these foreign introductions were adopted, or not adopted by the Cambodians.

The first, the greatest, and still the most obvious change to the diet of Cambodia came with the arrival of ethnic Chinese people thousands of years ago. The Cambodians today are distantly related to these people and the two countries still share a similar diet. The Chinese brought numerous dishes and foods to the region, including rice, noodles, and soy sauce, all of which are common ingredients in the food of Cambodia today.

Later India indirectly influenced Cambodian food as spices from the country arrived and became important aspects to the food today. These influences from India included turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, curries, and other foods, like naan. These impacts arrived slowly though, some via Thailand overland, while most arrived from the trading routes in the south, trading routes that brought in the Europeans, who again vastly altered the cuisine.

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.

Staple Foods

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 most meals

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 for breakfast
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 Etiquette

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.

Drinks

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 available.

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.

This page was last updated: March, 2013