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A culinary guide to Cambodia, from ancient recipes to street food

There’s a buzz around the Southeast Asian kingdom’s cuisine — not only is its street food scene thriving, but recipes and traditions once lost in the shadows of history are experiencing a resurgence.

Published 10 Dec 2021, 15:38 GMT
Grilled, skewered fish at a Phnom Penh market stall.

Grilled, skewered fish at a Phnom Penh market stall.

Photograph by Getty Images

The herbs are all on one level and the vegetables on another,” says chef Luu Meng. “This herb is sa om, and it smells like asparagus.” He thrusts the pungent leaves under my nose. “And our basil is really lemony. European chefs don’t understand how acidic Cambodian herbs are; it’s better to use them whole or sliced rather than blended.”

Inside Phnom Penh’s dimly lit Phsar Boeung Keng Kang market, the aisles have become torrents of shoppers. I struggle to stay afloat and keep Luu in view, distracted by the stalls around me, each one an explosion of colour and organised with military precision. The chef swerves towards a fish stall and I almost lose him. “It’s rare to find tonguefish in the market, so if I see it, I buy it all,” he says. 

Chef Luu Meng is a man on a mission. ‘Cambodia’s Gordon Ramsay’ — as one local told me wryly — is committed to putting Cambodia’s cuisine back on the world stage after spending years in Thailand and Vietnam’s gastronomic shadow. His story is inspirational: after his family fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Cooking is in his blood — his grandma was a chef at the Royal Palace, his mum had a noodle stall on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Described as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ for much of the 20th century, Phnom Penh is a beguiling city.

Photograph by AWL Images

Described as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ for much of the 20th century, Phnom Penh is a beguiling city. The elegant French and Khmer architecture, along with a peppering of picturesque pagodas on the banks of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers made the Cambodian capital one of Southeast Asia’s most intoxicating centres before the Khmer Rouge era. Today, it’s coming into its own once more with a thriving bar scene, vibrant cafe culture and host of outstanding restaurants, such as Luu’s Kroeung Garden Restaurant. 

When we head there, workstations are being set up on the leafy balcony. We’re making his signature soup, samlor prahal. No Cambodian meal would be complete without a light, sour soup like this. “Cambodia’s cuisine has absorbed influences from its neighbours, but there are subtle differences,” says Luu, as he chops ingredients. “It’s not as hot or as sweet as Thai; our food is only mildly spicy and we use less fish sauce than in Vietnam. We use spices, but fresh not powdered like in India. In Khmer cuisine, everything is fresh.” 

Another important maxim of Cambodian cuisine is that things can’t be rushed; the soup takes three to four hours to make and the key ingredient is kroeung, the fresh herb and spice paste that’s the bedrock of so many Cambodian dishes, and the inspiration behind the restaurant — and its name. “It’s all about slow cooking,” says Luu.

We pound fresh turmeric, garlic, ginger, galangal, chillis, shallots and young lemongrass in a bowl, then add the paste to the broth. Luu adds to the soup a handful of winter melon — a soft, courgette-like vegetable — along with a splash of fish sauce and chunks of river fish, handing me a spoon to taste. It’s refreshingly light and aromatic.

According to chef, Luu Meng, the best chicken always comes from Siem Reap. 

Photograph by AWL Images

“In Cambodia, the focus is on local specialities,” he says. “Everyone knows that the best chicken comes from Siem Reap, the best rice from Battambang, the best coconut from Kampot." The country’s regional cuisine is something Luu has a firm handle on. After working as a chef in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Meng returned home to Cambodia and hit the road. For six months, he travelled around the country, unearthing forgotten Khmer dishes that were lost during the Khmer Rouge genocide and researching local specialities. He then refined the recipes to create a new sort of Cambodian cuisine, geared towards modern palates.

In a similar vein to Luu’s travels, I head south to Kampot, an estuary town known for its numerous old, French colonial buildings. It’s home to a culinary success story of its own: its eponymous pepper, which was awarded PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2016, putting it in the same category as Champagne and the Cornish pasty. It’s a product with remarkable heritage, having been grown here for more than seven centuries; the climate between the mountains and the coast producing a distinctively aromatic pepper. In the early 20th century, no chef worth their salt would use anything but Kampot pepper, but then came the Khmer Rouge.

The regime had little interest in Kampot pepper, and forced people from the cities to work the land, particularly to grow rice. As a result, the plantations were abandoned, with some farmers fleeing the country. It wasn’t until the regime’s last fighters came down from the mountains in the late 1970s and put down their weapons that the plantations were gradually re-established, allowing the tradition to continue.

While in Kampot, I visit La Plantation, a pepper farm part-owned by Luu. As I bump down a potholed track through clouds of red dust, La Plantation’s smattering of restored, Khmer-style buildings edges into view. The farm was set up by a French-Belgian couple, Guy Porre and Nathalie Chaboche, in 2013, and offers free tours, tastings and classes. 

“We graze from stall to stall, tearing into barbecued beef skewers with pickled young papaya.”

by Lucy Gillmore

Beneath a searing sun, my guide and I wander among the pepper-strung trellises. As the colour of the berries changes, so do their flavour profiles, I learn: green pepper, fermented in salt, works well with goat’s cheese and caramelised duck; black pepper, the bulk of the harvest, has chocolate, mint and eucalyptus notes and complements game and charcuterie; while red pepper is fruity, floral and delicious when paired with fish, or ground over ripe strawberries.

As Kampot pepper enjoys its renewed popularity, Phnom Penh’s street food scene is also coming into its own. Back in the capital, I jump in a tuk tuk and sputter through its clogged, temple-flanked arteries to meet writer, guide and film location scout Nick Ray at the art deco Central Market for a street food ‘safari’. “Everyone has heard about the street food in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City,” he says, “but Phnom Penh’s should be just as famous.” 

We wander along aisles lined with dried fish: catfish, snakehead, squid. “Dried fish is salty but really good grilled and dipped in mango sauce.” The river crabs, he tells me, are fermented in salt for five days and then cooked with lemon, basil, sugar and chilli. 

We graze from stall to stall, tearing into barbecued beef skewers with pickled young papaya at Phsar Tapang, and grab a street-side pew for a plate of lort cha, a dish of short rice noodles stir-fried on a sizzling hot plate with bean sprouts, cabbage, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce, then topped with a fried egg.  

“Lort cha is a popular cheap lunch,” Nick says as we tuck in. “The carts selling them all play different tunes, like ice cream vans.” It’s thirsty work, and so we round off our tour with a tipple at the Juniper Gin Bar, which serves drinks from Phnom Penh’s first craft distillery, Seekers Spirits. I go for the kaffir lime leaf-laced Mekong G&T. It’s packed with native botanicals such as lemongrass, pomelo, galangal and lemony Khmer basil. It’s Cambodia in a glass.  

How to do it

Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airways fly from Heathrow to Phnom Penh via Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City, respectively.

Audley Travel offers a bespoke, 11-day trip to Cambodia from £2,280 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation, and can arrange chef-led cooking classes.

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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