The Cambodian diet is as varied as the languages Cambodians have borrowed words from. Two main features, however, prevail in many recipes – sweet and vinegar-sour or spicy hot.
The Cambodian mango salad is either sweet and vinegar-sour or spicy hot. You can never duplicate its taste using mangoes from other countries – there can only be the special taste using its home-grown Cambodian green mango. This unique mango has light yellow-orange or greenish-white flesh. Do not be deceived by its color though as it can taste sweet when ripe while its skin remains light green.
The Cambodian mango is as sturdy as the Cambodian people. It could survive the rough handling that backpacks go through at airports when wrapped in paper and plastic and cushioned in-between clothing. When you arrive home, place it in the refrigerator until you wish to eat it.
The Cambodian mango salad reflects the ingenuous and thrifty nature of its creator. Thin slices are shredded lengthwise. Place the strips in white vinegar, sprinkle shredded fresh red chili over it and add half to one teaspoon of a special Cambodian fermented prawn paste to it when ready to serve.
The mango salad is also sandwiched between the sides of a halved baguette, together with slices of fried luncheon meat or local fish ham. Each baguette sandwich costs less than a dollar at a road stall.
Seafood delicacies such as shellfish and sliced fish are spread in the sun to dry. Baby clams and cockles are covered in hot chili and lime paste, sun dried and eaten as a snack. Conks are boiled and eaten with soya sauce. You will have to use a toothpick to skilfully dig out the boiled meat from the conk shell. Thai and Cambodian seafood restaurants are easily located in large towns as well as along rivers.
Lok Lak is not a meat dish cooked with a special sauce. As Cambodians favor vegetables and savory dishes, Lok Lak is simply a beef dish to reflect these preference s.
Sliced onions are placed on one or two whole leaves of lettuce. Some chefs however prefer to shred the lettuce instead. Sliced tomatoes are then layered onto the onions. Finally, a generous amount of stir-fried strips or slices of beef is heaped onto the salad bed. The beef is usually cooked in a marinade consisting of sugar, vinegar, salt, black pepper, fish sauce and tomato sauce.
Chicken Lok Lak and pork Lok Lak are available in restaurants where foreigners frequent and They especially cater to the preference of non-beef consumers.
Have you had ice cream served to you in a coconut? In a shop at Kampuchea Krau, Phnom Penh, the juice from the coconut is served in a glass while the coconut holds two or three scoops of ice cream and fruit cocktail. Enjoy the soft pulp along with the ice cream and the fruit cocktail. Two sweet wafers accompany your special dessert.
If you are not hungry for a full meal, the coconut dessert serves well as a balanced light meal. Be prepared for the sugar-high effect however which feels good as long as you do not feel any stomach upset.
If you do have a volatile system but yearn for good ice cream and desert when you are in Siem Reap, head for Pub Street to the Blue Pumpkin’s lounge on the second floor.
A wide couch stretches along two walls. Huge pillows and smaller huggies line the couch. Sturdy glass breakfast stands act as little tables for your food right next to you on the couch. Fall asleep right after your food has been consumed. You will not be asked to leave. The pillow covers are changed daily.
Another special staple of the Cambodians is Kang Kong or morning glory. It is stir-fried with thin slices of chili, fish or any meat you choose to have. The crunchy dark green stems are tasty and juicy. Their hollow stems can catch and store the gravy or soup they are cooked in.
Do be wary if you have a weak stomach. The vegetable may be grown in multi-purpose water which is fine for locals but not for tourists who are used to purified water. Inspect its stem and gravy with care before plunging it into your gullet.
If you yearn for fast food, have a go at Cambodian fast food in the form of Lucky Burger and Lucky Seven. You will find fried chicken and burgers. This fast food chain also has a Mac Caf look alike known as the Luckafe which sells ice-blends, hot coffee, cakes and sandwiches.
Lucky Burger also hosts an ice cream parlor within the same venue. Prices are equivalent to top fast food restaurants around the world. When you place an order, you will be issued a ticket. The ticket number will be read out in the Cambodian language first, followed by English if there is no response. If you are a naughty foreigner, feign ignorance and the food will be brought to your seat.
Lucky Burger and Lucky Seven have been enjoying monopoly of sales until 2008 when the first Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant was open.
Lucky also boasts of a supermarket with a bakery that sell the items you can find at Luckafe. The supermarket carries a wide range of goods which cater to the wealthy locals as well as the foreigners residing in Phnom Penh.
Picnic grounds and string hammocks for resting are aplenty. They surround temple grounds in the rural areas. Chicken is slaughtered, cleaned and cooked before your very eyes in the traditional Asian way using wood fire. Traditional Cambodian lifestyle is still very family-oriented. These picnic grounds encourage family dining and togetherness.
Fruit lovers will not be starved. Fleshy whole coconuts, succulent bananas, jackfruit, pomelo, longan, lychee, custard apples, dragon fruit and rambutan are available almost the year round. If you have the nose for the pungent king of Asian fruits, take a squat along the pavement and enjoy the Cambodian durian.
Steamboat is another favorite among the Cambodians. Slivers of meat and pieces or leaves of fresh vegetables are cooked in a boiling pot of soup and eaten when hot. Rice of course accompanies the meat and vegetables.
Noodles are also eaten on a wide scale. You have a choice of the yellow mee, the white flat kuay teow or the shoe string bee hoon, each bearing the local Cambodian name with the meat or vegetables and the manner in which it is cooked. You can also try the local version of the vermicelli salad which is not as spicy as the Thai version but of course much sweeter.
If you are an insectivarian and yearn for alternative foods or are game to try the unknown, try the local fried spiders and fried honeyed crickets. It will certainly be the cuisine of a lifetime for you either way.
Amok fish is not fish that has run amok and fit for a fish sanatorium. It consists of large pieces of fish marinated and cooked in coconut milk, garlic, ginger, chili, fish sauce, curry powder, turmeric and paprika. This local curry may be quaintly served in a freshly halved young coconut shell which has its kernel intact.
Another favorite among the local poor is fermented cheese, minced meat or fish in chili and vinegar and eaten with rice or noodles.
No food is ever wasted in Cambodia. If you feel yourself to be in need of cold turkey treatment for food wastage, make a trip to the Cambodian dumpsite. You may see a local child stand on top of a hill of dump and chewing on the discarded remnant of a fish burger. Return to your country with that etched eternally in your long term memory. You will never want to waste the last morsel of food even though you can be the world’s richest man.
There are probably many more Cambodian cuisine and food not recorded here. If you would care to take a stroll along the narrow streets where the locals reside and are game to try anything even though your stomach may not hold it, you will find on open roadside charcoal grills, sausages, chicken and duck feet, corn on the cob and whole chicken and duck, to name but a few. You may also find boiled semi-developed chicken or duck embryo still in their shells.
If the last few roadside cuisine have put you off food more than fried spiders and crickets, head down to Pub Street in Siem Reap or to the main highways in the capital Phnom Penh. You will be certain to find something more palatable and internationally recognized as food. Even if the cuisine is advertised as Japanese, Korean, French or German cuisine, you can be sure that you will find a tinge of the Cambodian flavors in the food.