10 Surprising Facts You Need to Know About Food in Cambodia

Cambodia is a fascinating country, where the past is always present. The history of the country, both the ancient as well as the modern tyranny of the Khmer Rouge period (1975 – 1979) is reflected everywhere.

The big draw to Cambodia are the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.  

The food in Cambodia is distinct and influenced by the country’s culture and history. Along our journey to discover the local food specialties, we met some of the warmest and friendliest who proudly shared their dishes with us.

If your travels take you to Cambodia, here are 10 surprising facts you need to know about the food in Cambodia.

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1 – Cambodia Cuisine – Not a “Version” of Thai or Vietnamese Food

Before visiting the country, we didn’t know anything about Cambodia cuisine or what to expect. At the time of our visit, we had explored the local dishes of the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Our expectations were that Cambodia cuisine would resemble that of its neighboring countries, Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east.

CambodiaMap_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuest

What we found instead, were unique tastes and flavors to Cambodia.We tasted sour and bitter soups that we hadn’t eaten elsewhere. We learned how to make Amok, the national dish of Cambodia.

For breakfast, we discovered Kuyteav, a delicious rich rice noodle soup. And the seasonings and condiments like prahok (pungent fish paste), Kroeung (aromatic herbs and spices) and Kampot pepper (one of the world’s best peppers), all make for delicious Khmer food.

Kuyteav Food in Cambodia Authentic Food QuestDelicious Kuyteav for breakfast

In short, the food in Cambodia has its own characteristics. To compare it to the cuisine from the neighboring countries is limiting to the food and your experience. Even though you will find Thai influences in the food, as the Khmer Kings once ruled Thailand, Khmer cuisine is distinct in its own right.

Authentic Food Quest Tip: If you are in Phnom Penh, take a food tour with a local guide and explore Phnom Penh Street Food at Night. Alternatively, if you are in Siem Reap, explore Siem Reap Street Food at Night with a local guide and sample the food in Cambodia.

2 – Heavy Western and French Influence on the Food in Cambodia

Visitors to Cambodia will quickly notice the Western influence, due in part to French colonization and the current NGO presence.

For a relatively under developed country, we were quite surprised to see the “invasions” of U.S. food chains particularly in Phnom Penh. You will find Burger King, Carl’s Jr, KFC, Krispy Kreme and more.

Additionally, with a large expat community, many restaurants cater to the Western palate, popular Western foods or Western versions of the local food. For example, you might find french fries instead of the traditional rice in local dishes.

Furthermore, the French influence in the local food was also evident. Similar to Vietnam, the French brought the baguette to Cambodia called nom pang in Khmer. It is also a sandwich similar to the Vietnamese Bánh mì  although lacking some of its fresh herbs and delicate flavors.

NomPangSandwich_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestFamous Cambodia Num Pang Sandwich

In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you will find grocery stores that carry French products such as wine, cheese, butter, pastries, couscous, and other iconic French food products.

If you are a wine lover or have been traveling in Southeast Asia for a long time, Cambodia is the best place to find great wine at reasonable prices. A good grocery store to look for is Thai Huot located in downtown Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

ThaiHuot_FoodInCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestThai Huot store in Phnom Penh (source Thai Huot website)

3 – Finding Local Food Takes Effort

When it comes to finding local food, it took us some real effort to find the local gems. After seeing a lot of Western chains and international menus catering to tourists, we struggled to find the local dishes

One of the challenges we run into at some places was locals saying “you will not like this” or “this is not for you.” Instead, they would recommend “familiar” foods or dishes they deem palatable to Western tastes.

Given that we are on a quest to discover and showcase the local dishes, we had to dig deep and find the local specialties. We started by asking locals in the area, including expats like Jen and Stevo, at Two Can Travel, who have called Cambodia home since 2015. In addition, our local Airbnb hosts shared their local insights and recommendations with us.

Our quest for the local foods went deeper and led us to the local markets, where we ate and tasted a variety of local specialties. From dishes to desserts and drinks and sandwiches, our local food discoveries were guided by local stall vendors.

FoodMarketPhnomPenh_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestOpen air local market in Phom Penh

Ultimately, curiosity and willingness to try new foods is best. For instance, the way we stumbled onto Bitter Melon soup with Pork (Sgno Mareash) was simply not accepting the common phrase “this is not of your” and demonstrating a willingness to try.

BitterMelonSoup_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestMix of sweet and bitter flavors in this traditional Bitter Melon soup.

We walked into a popular local joint for lunch and were intrigued by all the bowls of soup on the tables around us. When we looked at the English menu we noticed the soup was not listed, in spite of a huge pot boiling next to our table. After insisting we wanted the same soup, the vendor reluctantly served us a bowl.

An English-speaking Khmer customer seated next to us explained that the reason the vendor was hesitant to serve the soup was because it was very bitter. Though, he also described it as popular with locals and not tourists.

While it was true the soup was bitter, it was pleasantly tasty as well. The experience of ordering and eating like a local does take persistence and determination.

4 – Everything On The Grill – BBQ in Cambodian Food

If you like grilled dishes and seafood, Cambodia is the food destination for you!

Anything and everything is grilled in Cambodia. With easy access to the Mekong River and the Tonlé Sap lake, fish and seafood are predominant in Cambodia cuisine and BBQ’s.

CambodianBBQ_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestFish, chicken and more cooking on the grill

It is common to see chickens and pork ribs grilling on large charcoal pit around markets.

And, you can also find unusual foods like grilled frog legs or grilled bugs!

Grilled frogs with chili in Cambodia by Authentic Food QuestGrilled frogs with chili

Even desserts are grilled! You will easily find street vendors with mobile BBQ carts grilling bananas for an afternoon snack or after lunch dessert.

GrilledBananas_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestVendor grilling bananas for a tasty treat

The most popular drinks at BBQ’s are beers. The most popular Cambodia beer is the Angkor beer which is widely recommended on menus. In addition, you will also find Cambodia, another local beer and the widely distributed Heineken.

Angkor_SoutheastAsianBeer_AuthenticFoodQuestAngkor Beer to go with your grilled food

5- Bizarre Khmer Foods – Snakes, Bugs, Dogs and More

Cambodia is the only country on our quest for authentic food where we encountered the most bizarre foods.

Eating bugs is common practice, and we saw children eagerly eating ants as snacks at the market after school. The first time we saw this, we were shocked.

As we got to know the Khmer culture and the ravaging history of the country, we learned that bugs and ants were the main sources of protein during the infamous Pol Pot regime. Basic food was scarce and Cambodians took to eating whatever insects, frogs, and snakes, snails—whatever they could find, “to survive.”

Nowadays, eating bugs, snakes, ants and more are not only part of Khmer cuisine, but also a huge attraction for tourists. As a result, you will find many vendors selling all sorts of grilled insects and reptiles on the street. Choose from typical Cambodian street foods like grasshoppers, worms, spiders, and snakes. Take a deep breath and give it a try!

InsectStreetVendor_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestVendor selling insects and snakes

If you are not excited about the idea of swallowing grilled tarantula from a stick, many restaurants menu options that let you try insects in a more appealing way.

Check Marum restaurant for fine local Khmer cuisine and Bugs Cafe, an insects tapas bar, in Siem Reap. At the cafe, you’ll have the pleasure of trying red ants tree beef as the main dish and tarantula donuts for dessert!

RedAntsTreeBeef_AuthenticFoodQuestRed Tree Ants and Beef at Marum Restaurant

The most unbelievable and hard to imagine bizarre food we encountered in Cambodia on our quest, was a dog’s head cooking in a pan near a local market in Phnom Penh. Needless to say, this was surprising extremely shocking!

We stumbled onto the dog’s head cooking late at night and didn’t have the chance to talk to locals and dig deep to understand the reason behind cooking dog as a dish.

In light of the dog’s head, it’s easy to see how eating bugs, snakes, and frog legs can be more palatable.

CookingDogHead_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestDog head stew in Phnom Penh

6 – Menus in English For Easier Communication

Coming from Thailand and Vietnam, it was a relief to be able to read and understand menus. While the official language of Cambodia is Khmer, English is also spoken.

We found English menus, even at local street side restaurants and at some markets. Where there were no menus, vendors speak a little English allowing you to communicate.

English_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestMenus in English and Khmer

If you are visiting Cambodia from Thailand for example, where it can be difficult to read the menu when no pictures are provided, you will appreciate the English menus in Cambodia.

With the popularity of Angkor Wat and large expat community, you will find a variety of eating options to sample local Cambodia cuisine. From the local markets, NGO restaurants, street food joints all the way to world-class dining options.

7 – One Country, Two Currencies

In Cambodia, the Riel is the national currency. However, the US Dollar is also widely used especially in large cities like Phnom Penh and tourist areas like Siem Reap.

It is easy to get dollars in Cambodia as ATMs dispense USD. Though, keep in mind that ATMs give you large bills of $100 USD. Make sure you get smaller change at large grocery stores, hotels, tourist venues or directly at the bank. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate was about 4,000 Cambodian Riel (or KHR) to $1USD.

CambodiaRiel_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuest1 USD equivalent in Riel, Cambodia national currency

We recommend using the Riel as much as possible as it is the local currency. If you use dollars, the vendors will typically round up the change in their favor. Many vendors will also take advantage and price their items higher.

In restaurants geared towards tourists, the menu will typically be in dollars and more than likely with the prices marked up. On the other hand, local joints will have the meal prices only in Riel.

Menuwith2currencies_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestMenu with pricing in two currencies

At the markets and small local restaurants, definitely, carry Riel and $1 dollars bills. At times, you need to pay with a combination of dollars and riel. While it might sound tricky at first, you’ll get used to the  “math” and comfortable handling the Cambodian currency.

8 – Negotiate: Different Prices for Different People

In Cambodia, everything is negotiable. From food at the markets to tuk-tuk rides (local transportation), be prepared to sharpen your negotiation skills.

While visiting the country, we learned that there are three different levels of pricing: tourist prices, expat prices, and the local prices. Sometimes, the tourist price can be up to 3x to 5x times more than what the locals pay.

Tuktuk_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestTuk-Tuk parked in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Some restaurants will have double standards where local pricing in Riel is clearly half of what is marked in English/USD. But unless you can read Khmer, it is difficult to point it out.

You will find the prices to be low compared to what you are used to home. Nonetheless, prices for meals can be up to two times what you would pay in neighboring countries like Thailand or Vietnam. One of the main reason is that these countries deal with only one currency. And generally speaking, there is no double standard where foreigners pay a different price than locals.

Look for places where the prices are clearly marked. It is best to have an idea of what you should be paying for. Don’t hesitate to walk away if the prices are clearly inflated.

Price_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestClearly marked pricing, for all

9 – Stretch Your Comfort Zone by Eating At The Local Markets

Unlike many local markets in Thailand or Vietnam, we found the local markets in Cambodia to be dirty, but the food and produce fresh and inexpensive.  

Dimly lit, low ceilings and not a lot of natural light is the typical setup of most markets. On the inside, the meats and fish areas are most certainly wet and can be muddy in some spots. Even though there are rickety wooden tables, plastic tubs, and worn baskets, the produce and food is fresh and delicious.

Don’t be afraid of eating at the markets. Look beyond the environment and focus on the food. You will be rewarded with amazing tastes and flavors.

Markets_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestTypical local market in Siem Reap

10 – Food in Cambodia For Good

In Cambodia, restaurants offer more than food.  As the country continues to rebuild itself, restaurants and cafes are teaching skills by supporting and employing vulnerable groups of people throughout the country.

The restaurant scene is active with support from NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We ate at a couple of NGO restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Overall, we were impressed by the quality of the food and level of service. We will highlight some of these restaurants in upcoming articles.

If your travels take you to the country, be sure to support NGO restaurants, that are empowering the local community.

Marum_FoodinCambodia_AuthenticFoodQuestMarum Restaurant, an NGO and training centre for disadvantaged youth
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In Summary

Visiting the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat should not be missed by travelers to Southeast Asia.

And, while you are in the country, we invite you to seek out the local food specialties. Even though Cambodia is anchored between two countries with strong food cultures, it does have its own unique food culture. The traditional and local Khmer food as well as the bizarre foods are experiences not to be missed.

Skip the Western restaurants and taste the local flavors. Eat at the markets, on the streets and support the NGO restaurants. Don’t forget to negotiate and embrace the local culture. Traveling through food in Cambodia will be one of the most riveting ways to get a sense of the daily life in the country.

Have you had Cambodian food before? In the comments below, share with us what surprised you the most about Khmer cuisine!

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44 comments

  1. Hey guys, thanks so much for providing so much information on the Cambodian food scene. When I travelled to Cambodia I too witnessed that they literally throw everything on the BBQ, it was interesting 😀

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    • So glad that you loved the article about Cambodia food. You are right, grilling is a huge part of the culture. Did you try anything interesting and unusual? Thanks for your comments and look out for more articles about Cambodia food. Cheers.

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  2. I really like how wide the range of food you can find in Cambodia. The southeast asian cuisines to western ones and the fusions and of course, the exotic ones. Cambodians are very creative when it comes to food.

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    • We were just as surprised Trisha at the range of local food specialties. The challenge was hunting the local foods down. Once we found the delights, the range is impressive. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Amazing job with this post. Giving reviews and recommendation about Cambodian foods can be very useful for others. Trying out local foods in a certain country you’re visiting is a must. But unfortunately sometimes because of the modern changes, it’s hard to find the local foods of each place. Due to the massive expansion of international chains.

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    • You are so right Sandy, it can be difficult finding the local and authentic spots tucked away from the all the international chains. Our goal is to have Authentic Food Quest become that resources for those hidden local gems. Glad you enjoyed the article!!

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  4. Really interesting, I’ll admit that I too assumed Cambodian cuisine would probably resemble a mix of Thai and Vietnamese, so it’s really interesting to hear that it has it’s own unique food scene. Fascinating that it’s heavily influenced by French and the West – how funny that the locals assume you don’t want to east their local food and point you towards more touristy restaurants.

    I love immersing myself in local delicacies, and am keen to try anything, though I think I’ll stick to the ants and snakes over the dog head!!!

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    • Thanks so much Meg for your feedback about the article. We were indeed surprised by the cuisine, cultural influences, and diversity of flavors. That’s awesome that you are keen on local specialties like the ants and snakes…you’d love Cambodia. Seriously, it is worth visiting and exploring. Thanks for stopping by.

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    • Hi Anneklien, when you do visit Cambodia, do hit the local markets. See the local specialties and even try them out. Do this before taking a food tour, where you will more than likely receive a catered experience that is “good for tourists.” If you do go and are looking to experience the real deal, let us know and we can connect you with our friends at Grantourismo. They can tailor a unique experience from a local’s perspective. No dog involved!!

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  5. A great compilation. It reminded me of our stay there while we were volunteering in Siem Reap. I remember how we use to scour the local markets for things we needed and also bargained like a pro. 🙂
    We could not try most of the “Exotic” food and we learnt to order even vegetarian dishes too .

    Here is an unbelievable sight of bar-be-cue from Siem Ream …. scroll to #5 street food https://www.lemonicks.com/asia/cambodia/7-must-see-experiences-in-cambodia/

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    • That’s wonderful to hear Nisha….you quickly learn in Cambodia to bargain every single place. Looks like you found amazing BBQ as well. So delicious and fresh. Glad you enjoyed your time in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Cheers!

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  6. Some great information as we are very unfamiliar with Cambodian cuisine. The picture of the dog stew is a bit disconcerting, would find it hard to eat especially if it was still growling.

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  7. You’ve done such a great job of pinpointing the best of what Cambodia has to offer. There are some truly delicious dishes. We took a Khmer cooking class on our trip to Cambodia and weren’t absolutely delighted with what we learned about this unique cuisine. Nice post!

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    • Thanks so much Heather for your feedback. That’s interesting that you were not delighted by you Khmer cooking class. We took one and will be writing about it shortly. We really enjoyed our experience and learning about the local cuisine.The food in Cambodia is different and a little introduction does go a long way!!

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  8. Cambodian food looks delicious, Rosemary. Some of the dishes look similar to food you get in other parts of Southeast Asia though. For example, the Numpang sandwich looks a bit Vietnamese and Kuytiev looks quite similar to other types of porridge.

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    • Indeed you are right Christina. There are similarities in the food, but it is important to recognize the differences in flavors in each country. For example, we loved the Bahn Mi in Vietnam. The Numpang sandwich in Cambodia had unique flavors and different cuts of meat. Similarities and differences too. Have you had Cambodian food? Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  9. I wish I’d had this guide when I visited Cambodia for a week back in 2013. I definitely felt like it lagged behind Thailand (where I’d been the month before) when it came to food, but it’s because I found it so difficult to track down local food amidst the tourist centred places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

    Next time!

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    • That’s too bad Chris the article was not out in 20113 🙂 Agree, it does take some serious hunting to track down real local and authentic Cambodian food. Perhaps its time for another visit 🙂 Cheers.

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  10. What a detailed post, you’ve taught me a lot about food in Cambodia. Did you try the ant dish yourself and what did you think of it? The bitter melon soup sounds intriguing too – and very thoughtful of the locals to consider that tourists might find it too bitter

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    • So glad you enjoyed reading the article Suze. Indeed, we did eat the red ants and found them quite tasty. The bitter melon soup was an experience and importantly a great way to “eat with, and like the locals.” Are you intrigued to try Cambodian food? Thanks for stopping by.

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  11. I had never considered the Western and French influence on Cambodian cuisine and I think its funny they tried to refuse serving you a local dish! I also love to try the local beer anywhere I go!

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    • Thanks Samantha…indeed it was a weird experience when they tried to steer us away from the local dishes. It was worth the “fight” and the range of flavors and textures is quite amazing. Yes, to the local beers…another way to experience the local culture 🙂

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  12. Whenever I think of Cambodian food, insects and reptiles come to kind instantly! I’m all for trying local cuisine, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to try an insect or reptile!! Maybe this will change when I visit! Lol

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    • Hi Livi, there is more Cambodia cuisine than insects and reptiles. We included them here because they are a part of the local culture. However, there are other local dishes worth trying!! Hope you get to visit soon.

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  13. I love discovering the flavour and culture of a place through it’s food. Can’t say I’d be excited to try out dogs and bugs *shudder* but it’s so interesting how tastes vary from country to country!

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  14. So fascinated with Cambodia now especially in finding out that the tastes are unique to the region! I usually don’t give the food of a region much thought but your viewpoints make me feel I really should and that food can be travel gems in themselves. Will have to skip the bugs unfortunately – I like to try new things but eh… maybe not THAT much 😀

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    • You are most welcome Elizabeth. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be writing about the specific dishes not to miss in Cambodia. Check in regularly. Additionally, feel free to reach out with any questions. Cheers!

      Reply
  15. It is interesting that there is a heavy French influence in their cooking style – interesting fact! Did you find that their dishes were heavy with meat or were they lighter with veggies?

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  16. Great post! I took a food tour on my first night in Siem Reap and it was so much fun! I didn’t see snakes, though, as I probably would have tried it. I passed on the bugs, but did eat the frog legs. I loved the desserts there!

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  17. As a Vietnamese, I find Cambodian food look pretty similar with what we have in Vietnam. It’s true that the food in each country has its own characteristics. I really want to visit Cambodia and try these! Look so yummy

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    • Thanks so much Ha, for your feedback. Given that you are neighboring Cambodia, it is worth a visit to explore the differences between Vietnamese and Cambodia cuisine. What dishes here caught your attention? Cheers.

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  18. Wow thats alot info on eating in a part of the world I have never been. So interesting the colonial influence,and it seems like Heineken is everywhere! The insects and dogs freak me out a bit, I’m not going to lie! I am vegetarian and this just takes my love for veggies to a whole other level!

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    • Indeed, the food in Cambodia takes some getting used to….even for us as culinary explorers. The history is quite fascinating and understanding how it influences the food puts things in context. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

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