Cambodian Cuisine: A Fusion of Ethnicity, Trade, Wars and Colonization

Cambodian cuisine is similar to, and unique from, its Southeast Asian neighbors

Cambodian food
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First of all, let's clarify two terms what often cause confusion. Why do some people say "Cambodian cuisine" while others say "Khmer cuisine"? Are they different?

No, "Cambodian cuisine" and "Khmer cuisine" are the same thing. Before Cambodia became the Kingdom of Kampuchea (the official name in English is Kingdom of Cambodia), it was preceded by the mighty Khmer Empire which gave the country and the world Angkor Wat.

While English speakers call the nation Cambodia, the locals refer to it as Kampuchea. The word "Khmer" refers to the ethnic people and culture. In modern usage, however, Khmer is often used to describe in general the people, their native language, culture and cuisine.

For the sake of convenience and uniformity, let's stick with the terms "Cambodian cuisine", "Cambodian food" and "Cambodian cooking".

Cambodian food is a charming combination of strong and vibrant flavors. Cambodians like to make sure that there is a little of the salty, the sour, the sweet and the bitter in every meal.

Influences

Cambodian cuisine has drawn from the great civilizations of China and India, and has been influenced by trade with Spain and Portugal as well as relations with neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Just like Malaysian, Vietnamese and Philippine cuisines, the Chinese influence is evident in Cambodian food with the proliferation of rice noodle dishes.

There are various Cambodian kari dishes made with a spicy sauce similar to the Indian sauce that the Western world knows as curry. While the Cambodian kari uses many Indian spices, it also includes local (non-Indian) ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and galangal.

As with Thai cuisine, coconut milk rather than yogurt is used for the Cambodian kari dishes.

Cambodia and Vietnam were once part of French Indochina. When French Indochina was dissolved and both Cambodia and Vietnam gained their independence, Cambodia lost many of its territories to Vietnam which led to invasions by Cambodia and Vietnam going to war with Cambodia. The relation, belligerent as it was, brought Vietnamese culture into Cambodia and, with it, some of Vietnam's culinary traditions.

French colonization introduced the baguette, chocolate, coffee, butter, pâté and potatoes, among others. 

Popular Cambodian Food

Spring rolls made from rice paper are a popular snack in Cambodia where they are usually stuffed with fresh vegetables including carrots, lettuce leaves, beansprouts and all sorts of herbs like mint leaves, Asian basil, cilantro and spring onions or scallions.

Just as in Thailand and Laos, fermented fish paste, or prahok in local parlance, is a popular ingredient and adds a unique flavor to Cambodian cooking. The country is rich with both freshwater and saltwater fish, both of which are plentiful in Cambodia with its rich network of waterways and ocean, including the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap Lake and the Gulf of Thailand. It is no wonder then that, just as in Laos, fish forms the main source of protein for the Cambodians.

Rice is the staple diet in Cambodia and as with all the Southeast Asian cuisines, a Cambodian meal is best enjoyed when shared with others.