Cambodian cooking has often been overlooked in Asian cuisine, due to the perception of inheriting flavors from its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. While influences may certainly be traced back to their shared French heritage during the days of colonial rule, it is more likely that Cambodian cuisine predates that of its neighbours by more than 1,000 years. That means it already existed before the Portuguese introduced the mighty chilli pepper, and the founding of the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century.
In fact, its roots can be traced back to an illustrious past: the Khmer empire. During the glorious era from the early 9th century to the 15th century, the culture that created UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat also developed a cuisine with origins from India thanks to the spread of Hinduism before Buddhism took hold of the Mekong in the 13th century.
Not only were the Khmer great builders, decorating the Mekong landscape with monumental temples, the food was also larger-than-life. Through centuries of trial and error, the Khmer people established a subtle yet well-rounded flavor profile accented by spices and often providing intriguing contrasts such as sweet and sour, salty and bitter, as well as fresh and cooked.
A Confluence of Flavors
With the arrival of the French in the colonization of Cambodia from 1863 to 1953, we see to this day the popularity of num pang pate (crusty baguettes with pate and pickled vegetables) similar to the Vietnamese Bahn Mi, and a national love of coffee, which Cambodia also shares with Vietnam, as part of French Indochina. At the same time, Chinese influences in Cambodian cooking is evident through rice noodle dishes such as kuy teav, a pork-broth-based rice noodle soup, and bobor, a rice porridge traditionally served for breakfast, while soups and fish sauce from Vietnam, Indian curries, spices from the Far East, and fruit and vegetables from the Americas have also become staples.
What may not be so obvious however is that in the 1970s, ancient Khmer culture and cuisine was dealt a brutal blow during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Many of Cambodia’s indigenous food plants were destroyed by the regime. Fortunately, when Cambodia was safe enough for foreign aid groups to return, many native species were resuscitated, and the International Rice Bank dipped into its reserves, reintroducing more than 400 rice varieties to the country. Rice is now the staple food in Cambodia, so much so that the Khmer word for ‘to eat’ is nam bai, translated as ‘eat rice’.
The complex palette in Cambodian cooking comes from a combination of flavors and ingredients, forming a unique taste. Most of the country is very rural still, which affords access to a vast spread of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and fish found in bustling local markets. Galangal is a common root that is similar to ginger but milder and usually ground into a paste for use in dishes, while kaffir lime and lemon grass are often used to add into curries, soups and salads, giving breath to fresh, lemony flavors. The ubiquitous prahok, which is a salty, pungent and versatile fermented fish paste features heavily in Cambodian cooking. Created as a way to preserve fish, prahok, also known as Cambodian cheese, is made by descaling the fish and then traditionally crushed by foot in a basket. These days machines make the process much easier, not to mention more hygienic, and is sold in bottles after being left to dry in the sun.
Fresh ingredients aboard Aqua Mekong
Much like its neighbouring Southeast Asian cuisine, Cambodian food makes use of palm sugar, star anise, tamarind, and turmeric but one seasoning that is unique to Cambodia is the kroeung, also known as a curry paste made from cham pour seems kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, prahok shrimp paste, shallots and garlic, forming the base of many dishes, especially the famous amok.
Exemplifying the ultimate in Khmer influence, fish amok can be found everywhere in Cambodia, as well as on the Aqua Mekong. Aboard, it is served as a steamed snakehead fish curry that is redolent of lemongrass, galangal and coconut aromas. The freshwater fish, freshly caught from the Tonle Sap lake where the ship sails during the high-water season, impresses with its slightly firm flesh and absence of any fishy aftertaste.
What is the difference?
If the description of fish amok sounds like Thai cuisine, that is because many elements of today’s Thai cooking was influenced by Khmer cooking techniques and principles perfected over centuries. Many famous dishes we know now were reserved for royalty and elites in the past, having only used the finest ingredients and meats. Peasant food on the other hand comprised of easily accessible ingredients and can be found today in the form of street food and broths, but also unusual dishes like fried insects and grilled snake.
A key point of difference, and some would say an advantage, of Cambodian cuisine over Thai cuisine is that the former does not rely on the use of spicy chilies to create full flavor. Where chili is used in Cambodian cooking, it is added to provide a balance without overwhelming the senses. If extra spices are needed, dips and sauces are served alongside the main dishes in the form of chopped red chillies, garlic and soy sauce, the local Kampot black pepper, or fresh lime. In this sense, the Khmer have mastered the use of herbs and spices in Cambodian cuisine to create flavor without fats and meats, resulting in dishes that are more delicate and refined on the palate.
“We find that many of our guests, after they’ve tasted Cambodian dishes on board the Aqua Mekong, actually told us they really like and can relate to these dishes,” says Aqua Mekong consulting chef David Thompson. “There’s a lot of harmony in flavors going on, like you see in French or Italian cuisine.”
(See Chef David Thompson’s Pomelo and Lemongrass Salad recipe.)
A Sense of Place
Today, Cambodian cuisine is in the middle of a renaissance, with a clutch of fine dining restaurants making waves in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, honoring its Khmer culinary heritage. Refined Cambodian cuisine has also made its way out of the cities and onto the legendary Mekong River, on board the luxury 20-suite Aqua Mekong river expedition ship.
“As guests sail into or embark in Cambodia, they will be introduced to a much wider variety of Cambodian dishes,” Consultant Chef and Michelin star-winning Thompson describes. The Aqua Mekong menu features predominantly Cambodian and Vietnamese fare; with the team taking guests on a culinary journey following the Aqua Mekong as she sails up and down the Mekong — once the beating heart of the Khmer empire.
After all, a truly memorable Khmer cultural experience needs to engage all the senses. “When the ship sails into Cambodia or embarks from Cambodia, and the guests spend the day discovering the rich culture of the Mekong on excursions, it’s important that their cultural experience doesn’t just end with returning to the ship”, says Chef Thompson.
To make this happen, the chefs of the Aqua Mekong begin each day on the right foot. “There are some really superb quality and special ingredients in the lower Mekong basin like the breadfruit, which we pick and choose when we visit the local market every day, sometimes with guests if they wish to come along,” he adds.
Once the freshest local produce brought on board, curry pastes and sauces are all created from scratch in the ship’s kitchen for the lunch and dinner daily. “It’s not by any stretch to say that being able to taste the very best of Cambodian cooking in Cambodia gives you an incredible sense of place and history that can make any journey so much more meaningful,” Chef Thompson says.
The Key Ingredient
Consultant Chef Thompson looked to the Aqua Mekong team to create the menu for the expedition ship. From line cook to head chef, traditional Cambodian family recipes were gathered from each crew member and put through their paces.
Chef Thompson describes the process: “I worked with our head chef to turn what are essentially Cambodian family heirlooms into refined, five-star dishes for the Aqua Mekong. What we wanted to do was to keep the authenticity and integrity of the recipes intact while tweaking to perfect the taste of each dish for a refined presentation.”
While suffering a disruption in the transmission of traditional Cambodian culinary knowledge due to the loss of documentation and people, Cambodian cooking today is increasingly becoming a cultural priority with an emerging grassroots movement termed ‘New Cambodian Cuisine’, experimenting with traditional Cambodian dishes in a modern way. In December 2020, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation launched an official campaign for food diplomacy as a part of a larger economic diplomacy strategy, listing foods such as fish amok, pomelo salad, prahok, samlar korko (a traditional soup dish) and more as some of the Khmer dishes to be promoted. There is also a program established to train Cambodian cooks for serving Cambodian embassies, as well as cookbooks as a culinary promotion tool for diplomatic missions abroad.
And with accolades such as Cuisine Wat Damnak by French chef Joannès Rivière making the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 and 2016, the first Cambodian restaurant to make the list, the future of Cambodian cooking looks bright.
Take a journey of a lifetime aboard the award-winning Aqua Mekong river ship for a truly immersive, meaningful, and personalized luxury experience in this culture-rich landscape. Itineraries depart from Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. Aqua Expeditions is the only Mekong cruise that provides complimentary flight extensions to Siem Reap during the low water season. Discover more about the Aqua Mekong here.