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Things to eat in Phnom Penh

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Squished between culinary heavyweights Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is often overlooked when it comes to food. But once you've sampled Khmer cuisine, you won't turn back. Here are 10 dishes to start you off.

    Things to eat in Phnom Penh

    Bai sach chrouk: Pork and rice

    Bai sach chrouk or pork and rice is the most popular dish for breakfast which is served early on street corners all over Cambodia. Bai sach chrouk is also one of the simplest and most delicious dishes the country has to offer.

    Thinly sliced pork is slow grilled over warm coals to bring out its natural sweetness. Sometimes the pork is marinated in coconut milk or garlic -- no two bai sach chrouks are ever exactly the same.

    The grilled pork is served over a hearty portion of broken rice, added with freshly pickled cucumbers and daikon radish with plenty of ginger.

    On the side, you'll often be given a bowl of chicken broth topped with scallions and fried onions.

     

    Fish amok

     Fish amok is one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes. You will find similar dishes in neighboring countries but it is slok ngor (a local herb that imparts a subtly bitter flavor) that separates the Cambodian version from the others’.

    Fish amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, or Chinese ginger.

    At upscale restaurants fish amok is steamed in a banana leaf, while more local places serve a boiled version that is more like a soupy fish curry than a mousse.

     

    Khmer red curry

    Less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand, Khmer red curry is similarly coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili. The dish is served with beef, chicken or fish, eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass and kroeung.

    This delicious dish is usually served at special occasions in Cambodia such as weddings, family gatherings and religious holidays like Pchum Ben, or Ancestor's Day, where Cambodians make the dish to share with monks in honor of the departed.

    Khmer red curry is usually served with bread -- a remnant of the French influence on Cambodia.

     

    Lap Khmer: Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad

    Khmer beef salad features thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or "cooked" ceviche-style by marinating with lime juice.

    Dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans and green pepper, the sweet and salty dish also packs a punch in the heul (spicy) department with copious amounts of fresh red chilis.

    A refreshing dish that is more beef than salad, lap Khmer is popular with Cambodian men, who prefer the beef to be nearly raw -- but at restaurants it's generally served grilled. 

     

    Nom banh chok: Khmer noodles

     

    Nom banh chok is a beloved Cambodian dish, so much so that in English it's called simply "Khmer noodles."

    Nom banh chok is a typical breakfast food, and you'll find it sold in the mornings by women carrying it on baskets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders.

    It looks like Vietnamese Pho but it tastes far different. Nom banh chok consists of noodles laboriously pounded out of rice, topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime.

    Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower, cucumbers and other greens are heaped on top. There is also a red curry version that's usually reserved for ceremonial occasions and wedding festivities.

     

    Red tree ants with beef and holy basil

    You'll find all sorts of insects on the menu in Cambodia. Tarantulas included. But the dish most appealing to foreign palates is stir-fried red tree ants with beef and holy basil.

    Ants of various sizes, some barely visible and others almost an inch long are stir-fried with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and thinly sliced beef.

    Lots of chilies complete the aromatic dish, without overpowering the delicate sour flavor that the ants impart to the beef.

    This meal is served with rice, and if you're lucky you'll also get a portion of ant larvae in your bowl.

     

    Cha houy teuk -- jelly dessert

    Hot sticky summers call for sweet sticky snacks. After school in Phnom Penh, young people crowd around street stands serving Khmer desserts for 1,000 riel, about US$0.25.

    Some have sticky rice or sago drenched in coconut milk and topped with taro, red beans, pumpkin and jackfruit.

    One of the most refreshing is cha houy teuk, a sweet jelly dessert made with agar agar, a gelatin that is derived from seaweed.

    The jelly can be brightly colored in pinks and greens, making it especially popular with children.

    Combined with sago, bleached mung beans and coconut cream, cha houy teuk is usually served in a bowl with a scoop of shaved ice.

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