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Eating Cambodia: One dish at a time

Travelling in Cambodia is a thrill for the taste buds. Name anything you feel like eating – it’s here! Nachos? Sure. Chicken tikka? No problem! KFC? Absolutely. MacDonald’s? Well, actually no. But really, there is no shortage of delicious meal options. A large community of French expatriates has ensured a wonderful array of French restaurants, each better than the next. The old market in Siem Reap is a gourmand’s dream come true. The riverside in Phnom Penh is an gastronomic heaven. And look hard for the fascinating boutique eateries with home-made pies, pastries, curries, pizzas (with truly special condiments!), and even bratwurst. We might say something like ‘The tongue boggles!’ But coming to Cambodia isn’t about eating foreign food (all the time, at least).

Nestled between the gastronomic giants of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian cuisine is a quiet back road, largely ignored. Many visitors to Cambodia even forgo the local dishes in favour of those fabulous French restaurants and imported menus that are both tantalizing and widely available. Now while Cambodian food may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s a mistake to ignore it all completely. Cambodian food is a wonderful mix of culinary influences. Let’s have a look!

Cambodia’s most popular

Widely available, cheap and delicious, the local ‘pâté sandwich’ is not to be missed. The local version of the French loaf, made from rice flour, is light and delicious. In this format, the Cambodians fill it with processed meat (their version of the French pâté), a slightly spicy spread, pickles, and a delicious variety of local cucumber and spring onion. Most often, these are cooked on the side of the road, heated in a mobile oven and handed over in a little package that demands immediate attention!

Cambodia’s most traditional

Unlike Thai food, Cambodian cuisine is not spicy. Instead, it aims for contrasts: in a dish you’ll find sweet and bitter, salty and sour, raw and cooked. If you are familiar with Asian food, there will be many dishes you’ll recognize – noodle soup, red curry, salted fish, beef salad, spring roles, and fresh seafood. Specific to Cambodia is a focus on pepper. And if you enjoy fresh pepper, the enjoy the profusion of tiny peppercorns that are found in many very traditional Cambodian dishes. For the ultimately traditional Cambodia dish (in my opinion), try Lok Lak: it’s a beef stir fry, served on a bed of fresh tomato and lettuce, and always served with a little bowl of lemon and pepper sauce.

Cambodia’s most unusual

You can get a taste for the unusual in Cambodia. Like many Asian countries, interesting items pop up on menus. For a snack, many Cambodians enjoy a bug or grub as much as anyone, but for something truly Cambodian, try fried tarantula. The spiders are about the size of your palm, and the fleshy body is crispy on the outside, and soft and white on the inside. They are generally deep-fried in garlic and served as a mid-afternoon snack. High in protein. Trying this is eating a little Cambodia’s tragic recent history: the practice of eating these spiders began, it’s said, during the extremely trying days of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent famine. In which other country is history edible?

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