What Makes Cambodian Food Rich and Unique With Chef Joannès Rivière

Going behind the scenes and getting to know what makes a cuisine special is what we aim to expose with Authentic Food Quest.

Cambodian food was a bit of mystery at the beginning. After spending exploring the local flavors in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, we discovered a country with unique flavors and distinctive food culture.

Our article 10 surprising facts you need to know about the food in Cambodia goes into more detail.

One of the top restaurants in Cambodia is Cuisine Wat Damnak. The restaurant specializes in authentic Cambodian cuisine with creative French culinary techniques.

In addition, Cuisine Wat Damnak, in Siem Reap was the first Cambodian restaurant to be listed on the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016.

In this article, we interview Joannès Rivière, the chef behind Cuisine Wat Damnak. He shares his thoughts on what makes Cambodian food rich and unique. The interview ends with his personal list of local and authentic dishes not to miss on your visit to Cambodia.

Let’s go behind the scenes on a culinary journey through Cambodia with chef Joannès Rivière!

Cuisine Wat Damnak Joannes Riviere at the market Authentic Food QuestChef Joannès Rivière at the market in Siem Reap (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)
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#1- What Attracted You to Cambodia?

My father and his brother lived in Cambodia in the early 1970s so I grew up hearing about Cambodia. Not really about the food, but more about the unique and strange atmosphere at this time.

The people, the culture, and the war were recurring topics that fascinated me growing up.

Of course, when I found a volunteer position 14 years ago and after 2 really hard working years in the US, I jumped on the opportunity.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Garden Joannes Riviere Authentic Food QuestCuisine Wat Damnak - garden (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)

READ MORE: Eating the creatively prepared traditional Cambodian flavors, at Cuisine Wat Damnak was one of our culinary highlights during our Siem Reap stay. We got a deeper appreciation of the local ingredients in unusual and delicious combinations. Click to read more Spotlight on Cuisine Wat Damnak – The Best Siem Reap Restaurant


#2- What Do You Find the Most Fascinating About Cambodian Food?

Probably its complexity within its simplicity. The simplicity of recipes and preparations, because most Cambodian cuisine is very rustic and not very different from one province to another.

The complexity of the ingredients and combinations. Cambodia is still very rural and therefore we have access to an amazing collection of vegetables, herbs, fruits, or fish that most of our neighboring countries such as Thailand or Vietnam no longer use or value.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Rice porridge with scallops JoannesRiviere Authentic Food QuestBlack sticky rice porridge with scallops (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)

#3- What Would You Say Is the Difference Between Khmer Cuisine and Cambodian Cuisine?

Cambodia is the country and therefore encompasses the ethnic majority, the Khmers, along with the Chinese, the Lao, the Cham, the Viet, the Samre, the Jarai… Cambodian food is a mix of all those cuisines.

Khmer cuisine relates to a specific group without the capital idea of the influence of other groups.

Where does it start? When does it stop? It is hard to say and I do not think it is very relevant. It has actually become a politicized term that I find unsound and I’d rather like to stay away. It is a little bit like talking about Latin cuisine in Italy or Gallic food in France.

Cuisine Wat Damnak braised pork Joannes Riviere Authentic Food QuestCaramelized palm sugar braised pork shank with star anis, bamboo shoots and crispy breast (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)

#4- How Would You Describe the Cuisine/Food at Cuisine Wat Damnak?

I had a really good remark from a Cambodian customer one day: “it tastes like Cambodian food but it is not Cambodian food.” I think it is actually a very nice compliment.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Upstairs by Joannes Riviere Authentic Food QuestLovely decor at Cuisine Wat Damnak (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)

#5- Top Five Local Specialties Visitors to Cambodia or Siem Reap Should Try?

While not everyone might agree, these five dishes my personal recommendations.

  • Samlar Prohar Noum Banchop

    This is light coconut and fish curry with Cambodian rice noodles and a lot of crudités. Available in markets for breakfast or all day long in Pradak village within the Temple area.

  • Kha Trey Svei Kchey

    Delicious braised fish with caramelized palm sugar, peppercorn, and fresh green mango

  • Prahok Kti 

    Local specialty, braised prahok (Cambodian fish paste) with coconut, minced pork, fish and crudités

  • Samlar Korkor

    This is a fish and vegetable stew thickened with toasted rice, probably the Cambodian national dish.

  • Sach Ko Han Teuk Prahok

    This one needs to accompanied with a lot of beer: Grilled beef with prahok sauce. Genuine drinking food, in front of Wat Damnak pagoda.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Sanday Fish Joannes Riviere Authentic Food QuestGrilled SandayFish in wild betel leaf, ripe and pickled green papaya salad. (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)
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In Summary

While not well known, diving into the rich history of Cambodian food with chef Rivière, provides a richer understanding of this simple and yet complex cuisine. Understanding the cultural influences that shape the local flavors, helps deepen your appreciation for the cuisine, people and culture.

While dining at Cuisine Wat Damnak, the menu was heavily fish oriented, one of the characteristics of Cambodian food. Fish is the popular source of protein and you will find it eaten in all forms. From freshwater fish, to fish paste (prahok) to dry fish, smoked fish and more.  As such, it is not surprising that the local Cambodian food recommended by chef Joannès Rivière is fish based.

On your travels to Cambodia, leave your expectations of the food behind. Come with an open mind and discover the local flavors at the markets, on the streets, and at the restaurants. You’ll be delighted to discover the unique tastes and flavors of Cambodian food.

What surprised you the most about Cambodian Food in this interview with chef Joannès Rivière? Please share your comments below.

Savor The Adventure!

How To Get To Cuisine Wat Damnak for Chef Joannès Rivière Cuisine

Cuisine Wat Damnak

Address: Wat Damnak, Market Street, Siem Reap. Check here for directions.

Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 6.30 pm to 9.30 pm

Reservation: +855 (0)77 347 762 (9-11am, 2pm until closed on working days)

or by email: [email protected]

What Makes Cambodian Food Rich and Unique With Chef Joannès Rivière 1Purple dragon fruit, passion and vanilla, sorbet, meringue and curd. (Photo credit: Cuisine Wat Damnak)

For more about Cambodian Food and Cooking, check out chef Joannès Rivière book: Cambodian Cooking filled with more than 6o authentic recipes.

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35 Comments on “What Makes Cambodian Food Rich and Unique With Chef Joannès Rivière”

  1. I LOVE fusion food (if it’s done well) and it certainly looks like the food is done well from your pictures! I often have Cambodian food but not fusion style like this. The Black Sticky Rice with scallops? I’m SOLD! Really want to try it – have to put this restaurant on my list to try the next time I visit!

    • Thank so much Eve and glad to read that you already eat Cambodian food. Do you have any particular favorite dishes? Cuisine Wat Damnak is certainly not to be missed on your next trip to Siem Reap. The one thing to keep in mind is to book in advance. It gets booked months in advance 🙂 Indeed the black sticky rice with scallops is amazing!! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. This is a very interesting interview. I always love entering the minds of those who create food. I love the decor Cuisine Wat Damnak. Sach Ko Han Teuk Prahok with a lot of beer sounds perfect for me.

  3. I wish I had known about Cuisine Wat Damnak when I was in Siem Reap, an excuse to visit Cambodia again! I must say that I really loved the food there and it was a nice break from Vietnamese food. As you say they are simple but complex flavours. You’ve really highlighted how lovely and vibrant the Cambodian food is :).

    • Thanks so much Katherine. Really appreciate your feedback about the interview. It is too bad you missed eating at Cuisine Wat Damnak, but like you said another reason to go back:) Indeed the food is simple, but with complex flavors. A must for food travelers 🙂

  4. What a great interview! That food looks fantastic. I’ve never had any Cambodian food, not even a foreign knock off, so this all looks enticing. I enjoy the use a lot of fish and veggies, since I am a pescatarian. Will definitely visit if I am ever in the area.

  5. I’ve never tried Cambodian food, I need to visit the country! This was a fascinating insight into the cuisine there and the fish with mango sounds particularly tasty. Thanks for sharing

    • You are most welcome Susan. Cambodian cuisine is not well known, yet it is quite delicious. The food culture is fascinating and the dishes particularly tasty. Hope you get a chance to visit Cambodia in the near future. You will not be disappointed!! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Love your approach to getting the Chefs point of view on Cambodian cuisine. Clearly I missed out on tasting and learning about the complexity and cultural fusion of all the nationalities. Excellent pictures, that restaurant is a must go!

  7. Everything sounds delicious – people tend to focus more on Thai food but Cambodian food sounds like the one to try, that black sticky rice with scallops looks divine!

  8. Hi Claire,

    Just needed to see him at that market to know the guy knows his stuff. Seriously. The best chefs in these countries go to the local market, pick through, get it all fresh and prepare these organic foods wonderfully. I love when I see chefs on these cooking shows get down and dirty in the real markets, in Cambodia, Thailand, everywhere. Fun! Thanks for sharing 🙂


    • Glad you enjoyed reading the article, Ryan. We agree 100%, chefs who go out and pick their food at the local markets are the best. If you make it to Cambodia, you’ve got to try the end result at Cuisine Wat Damnak. Absolutely incredible!!!

  9. Thanks for sharing. These were some yummy looking dishes. I’ve never tried Cambodian food, but this was definitely a great place to start my interest.

  10. WOW I knew absolutely NOTHING about Cambodian food so this was interesting to read. And now I’m hungry haha. Love the photos you chose as well, they are so colorful!

    • That’s wonderful Sarah that you are now totally intrigued by Cambodian food. It is not well known, but quite delicious. If they have a restaurant in your area, give it a try. Glad you enjoyed the article!!

  11. I must admit that I didn’t know much about Cambodian food before reading this article. I’m not a fan of fish or seafood, generally, so I suppose it isn’t that surprising that I stayed away. But now I’m intrigued. I love the idea that they have access to so many vegetables and herbs that aren’t highlighted in other countries anymore. Plus, the Cuisine Wat Damnak looks like a gorgeous place to experiment. 🙂

    • So happy to read that you are intrigued and ready to give fish a second chance. We believe that when you explore the local flavors on your travels, you discover or rediscover new tastes. With the local herbs and vegetables, dishes come to life in a new way. You’re right, Cuisine Wat Damnak has the perfect blend of local and modern furnishings. Hope you can make it to Cambodia soon. Appreciate your feedback, Patricia!

  12. I LOVE this post! I’ve never tried Cambodian food but now I really want to, especially since I enjoy eating fish, and I’m glad I know a little more about it. Great post, Rosemary!

    • Thank you, Anita, and so glad you enjoyed the article. Cambodian food is a unique experience and if you have a chance to try it, don’t hesitate at all. As a fish lover, you will love it. Appreciate your comments 🙂

  13. Nice idea on putting the spotlight on Cambodian food. Never been to Cambodia myself but there are two great Cambodian restaurants where I live in Ottawa and the food tastes great. I imagine just how amazing it will be to eat authentic ones in Cambodia straight from the locals.

    • That’s awesome to hear that you have two great Cambodian restaurants in Ottawa. If you haven’t been, you’ve got to go. The food is amazing and needs to be experienced. You are right, eating in the local food in the country of origin is a unique experience! Cheers.

  14. Thanks for this informative article. I live in Lithuania and we actually don’t have even a Cambodian restaurant here. 🙂 Your article made me very interested in it though, so I’ll try to try it next time in London, because no trip to Cambodia is anywhere in sight .


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