One great way to explore a country is to try local food.
When you are a traveler from overseas, you may have never tried some of the more exotic dishes in Asia, and all you know might be spring rolls and Thai curry.
Cambodian cuisine isn’t well known outside the country but has to offer a lot. It is best described as a mix of Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but has it authentic flavors as well.
There are three main ways: go to a local restaurant, grab some street food or dine with the locals.
So, what’s the best way to explore Khmer food?
1. Local restaurants
There are a lot of local restaurants – some cater only local people and some are for tourists as well.
The authentic Khmer food is usually available in local restaurants. But there is a catch: most are specialized in on or a few dishes.
You will getter best noodle soup (Kuyteav) in a traditional restaurant with plastic chairs and steel tables. Those noodles are served with or without soup, and with rice (white) or egg (yellow) noodles.
You can select beef, pork or chicken. Vegetarian options are rare, but you can just ask to leave the meat out (although the soup base is still beef stock). Another must-try is Nam Ban Chock Samlor Trey: white noodles in a mild coconut curry with herbs an fish.
While most noodle soup restaurants are open early and a popular breakfast place, the BBQ restaurants open in the evening. Some are all you can eat, some are specialized on pork or beef. Don’t expect a full steak on your plate, it’s common that the meat is cut into pieces (hence the lack of knives on a table).
Of course there also restaurants offering a broader range of Khmer food. It is common to share the food, so when you sit on a table with friends, dishes will come as they are made and then shared. Classic dishes to try are Amok with fish or chicken and beef Lok Lak.
Ko Kor is a soup with roasted rice powder (and can be made without any meat), or a bamboo shoot coconut soup with locals herbs and leaves.
Rice is often served by the waitress, who appears with a big bowl and then shovels rice on your plate.
2. Street food
While countless bloggers praise street food as authentic, in particular in Thailand, it is only half of the truth. Street food in Asia is most of all cheap food. It’s made for workers, who just want to grab a bite.
There is a lot of rice and not much on top, ingredients are cheap as well and not the most healthy one. Don’t expect any organic food here. Some markets offer street food as well, usually for those who work there or the customers.
It’s an interesting experience to have seat there, order something and then watch what’s going on around you. Best dishes are fried fish and chicken, and if you dare, grilled rats.
3. Eat with locals
The best way to experience local food in Cambodia is with local people. As a traveler, it might be a bit difficult to get in touch with the family next door let alone get invited. But there are solutions.
One is a homestay, where you basically live with a family, often in their house in a separate room. If you don’t want to spend so much time, try Dine With The Locals.
It’s a platform where you can select from hosts all over Cambodia and then join them for lunch or dinner. Booking is made online and easy to do. Most hosts are in Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh, and Banteay Meanchey.
The project was started to give local families additional income: They prepare a set menu (available on the website) for you and then share the meal.
All hosts and locations are different: from a wooden house in the forest to an organic farm and an artists apartment in Phnom Penh. Since the food is made just for you, it’s fresh and made as they cook it for generations.
It can’t get more authentic when it comes to a real food experience in Cambodia.