Want to learn about Cambodian cuisine? Take a virtual trip to this southeast Asian nation with Luu Meng, head chef of Malis restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Luu says, “When I was a boy, I helped my mother in her noodle shop in Phnom Penh. That’s where I learnt about noodles, flavourings and how to make a broth. She and my grandmother, a chef in the royal palace, gave me my love of cooking. I went to cookery school in Thailand before working in Singapore and Malaysia, but I was drawn back to my roots.
I travelled Cambodia, exploring regional dishes and lost recipes. I wanted to revive and refine traditional Khmer cuisine. Modern Cambodian food is a combination of native Khmer traditions infused with French, Indian and Chinese influences.”
1) Fish amok
Amok, a steamed curry with fish or seafood, is Cambodia’s national dish. Our cuisine has been influenced by India and China but it is not as hot and spicy, or as sweet as our neighbours’ (when you add a lot of chillies you need to add sugar). We steam the curry wrapped in a banana leaf with local herbs. In Kep on the south coast, the local speciality is crab amok, in other areas it’s scallops. We eat a lot of fish and shellfish in Cambodia, from baby crabs found in the rice fields to the wild freshwater tonguefish or river sole which has a really creamy flavour and yellow flesh. When you marinate the fish with coconut and kroeung – a fresh lemongrass and herb paste – then steam the dish, the flavours all come together. It’s a mild and creamy curry, not too spicy, and very tasty.
2) Samlor prahal
Samlor means soup and in Cambodia we eat a lot of soup dishes. This recipe is very healthy, cooked with freshwater fish, fresh herbs and lots of vegetables such as winter melon (you can swap in courgette). It puts you in a good mood, and is a traditional hangover cure! Everyone loves it, children and adults. The base is chicken or fish stock and lemongrass. It’s cooked slowly, the shallots fried with dry shrimp powder, coconut palm hearts and a herb called om, which tastes like wild asparagus (which is different from farm-grown asparagus). You can make it with kroeung or a clear version. People from the mountains and coast cook this dish with kroeung but those near rivers prefer to eat it clear, with less lemongrass. It has a sweet, natural taste from the fresh fish and vegetables.
3) Keiv teav Phnom Penh
In Cambodia people eat noodles every day from 5am-11am – this is a traditional breakfast from a street food stall – and then again from 3pm-7pm. It’s not a dish you’d make at home as it takes around six to seven hours to make. Slow cooking is very characteristic of Cambodian cuisine. The broth is simmered overnight with a pork bone, dried shrimp, squid, onions and spices. The noodle soup is then served with slices of pork, minced pork and liver, shrimps, bean sprouts, coriander and a slice of lime.
Kroeung is a fresh spice and herb paste, and the base of many Cambodian dishes. There are three basic kroeung pastes: green (the main ingredient is lemongrass), yellow (turmeric) and red (chillies) but the combination of spices will vary around the country, and depending on what you are cooking. Around the Mekong River we cook a lot of freshwater fish, so the kroeung is lighter than that used in the mountains, where they cook more meat. Kroeung is made with a pestle and mortar, with fresh ingredients, never dry – young lemongrass, shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger, galangal and chilli.
The best coconuts come from Kampot. The estuary is brackish, seawater mixing with the fresh water from the river adding a lot of minerals to the soil. This gives the coconuts a totally different taste to those from other areas of Cambodia. They are naturally organic. We use a lot of coconut and have the luxury of fresh coconut cream when making desserts. When you grate the coconut, add water, then squeeze it. The first squeeze is the cream, the second coconut milk. We always add a tiny bit of salt to the coconut to bring out the flavour.
The pomelo from the island of Koh Trong in Kratie has been awarded Protected Geographical Indication status. The citrus fruit looks like a large grapefruit and is harvested twice a year, around October and November, and also March to April. It has a distinct flavour – different to pomelos from other areas – it’s sweeter and has less pips, and is delicious in a seafood salad with shrimp, lime, chilli and peanuts.
In the markets in Cambodia, the stalls are usually laid out with herbs on one level for soups, and vegetables for stews on another. Cambodian herbs are very acidic when blended, but if you use them whole or sliced then the flavour is milder. We eat a lot of salad, which is down to the French influence. But our dressings are different. We eat salad three ways – with a chilli or tamarind dressing or a European-style vinaigrette. A seafood salad works well with a tamarind (with garlic, chilli and salt) dressing as it adds sourness.
8) Kampot pepper
Kampot pepper has Protected Geographical Indicatio status and has been grown in the south of the country around Kampot since the 13th century. The pepper plantations between the mountains and the sea have a moist climate and rich soil, producing a pepper with a very mineral taste. It’s aromatic, fragrant – different from any other pepper in the world. The plantations produce fresh green, white, red and black pepper. Raw green pepper is very good with seafood or beef – it’s juicy, so works well in a marinade. White pepper has a mild taste, so we use it with chicken, fish, pork or veal. Red is good with desserts, while black pepper is stronger and often paired with red meat and used in marinades for lamb and beef.
9) Coffee culture/Mondulkiri coffee
Coffee was introduced to Cambodia by the French. In the morning we drink iced coffee from street stalls – sometimes with condensed milk. Cambodian coffee is not that well known because most of the beans grown are robusta, because of the low altitudes. However, recently a number of small plantations in the Mondulkiri province in the north-east of the country, near Laos, have been producing high-quality arabica beans. The climate is cooler in this mountainous region and it has a fertile red soil. The beans are slowly dried in the sun, giving them a real sweetness.
10) Pchum Ben/festival food
Pchum Ben is like Cambodia’s Halloween. It’s a 15-day festival in honour of the dead. Families come together and cook chicken curry eaten with rice noodles, rice or bread. Hungry ghosts are believed to roam the land at this time and so we go to the temples to pray and give offerings of food to the monks who pass the food on to the spirits. ‘Ben’ means ball or portion of rice and ‘bay ben’ are sticky rice balls with sesame – both are thrown into the air or fields for the spirits.
Interview conducted by Lucy Gillmore