A Vegetarian Guide to Cambodian Cuisine

Before traveling to Cambodia, I had never experienced Khmer cuisine. Over the past two months, I have tried an array of Khmer foods and found their combination of sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami tastes incredibly pleasing to my palate. While the below list is not meant to be exhaustive, it should help you identify dishes which you can eat during your next trip to Cambodia or a Cambodian restaurant.

Amok
Amok trei, or steamed curried fish, is the national dish of Cambodia. Amok differs dramatically depending on where you order it. Named after the banana leaves it was traditionally served in, amok can resemble a red, yellow, or green Thai coconut curry or a casserole with baked or steamed gravy, meat, and vegetables. While fish was historically the main ingredient, most places now offer a choice of chicken, pork, fish, or vegetables. Other ingredients include coconut curry and kroeung, meaning spices and herbs. Typical spices used in Cambodian cooking include lemon grass, lime, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots, and dried red chilies, though amok usually substitutes Kaffir lime leaves for turmeric.

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Photo of pumpkin amok

Somlar Kari (Khmer Curry)
Somlar kari, translated as Khmer Curry, is a hearty curry full of vegetables, such as carrot, sweet potato, onion, eggplant, and long beans, and is flavored with kroeung spices. It tastes similarly to a Thai coconut curry but with fewer chilies. While Khmer Curry was customarily served with rice vermicelli noodles or a fresh baguette to celebrate occasions like weddings, it can now be found at most restaurants with English menus where it is accompanied by jasmine rice. Strict vegetarians and vegans should ask the chef to prepare the dish without fish sauce.

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Photo of Khmer curry

Somlar Machu (Sour Soup)
Somlar machu refers to an entire class of thin but refreshing sour soups. Somlar machu trei, also known as somlar machu Khmer Krom, contains a freshwater fish such as catfish, tomato, pineapple, and basil. Lotus root, okra, morning glory, water spinach, bamboo shoots, Asian rhubarb, and bean sprouts often make an appearance as well. Tamarind, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, lemon or lime juice, prahok (fermented fish paste) give the soup its sour and citrusy notes, while ginger and garlic round out the flavor. Ask the kitchen to prepare the soup without fish and prahok if you do not eat seafood.

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Photo of sour soup via Katiya Korner

Salads
Khmer cuisine has a number of salads starring green mango, green papaya, pomelo, banana flower, shrimp, or beef as the main ingredient. Other ingredients comprise long beans, dried fish or shrimp, tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts, lemongrass, cilantro, and basil. The dressing contains shallots, garlic, galalangal, red chilies, prahok, palm sugar, and lime juice. As with other Khmer dishes, vegans and vegetarians should ask the cook to prepare the dish without seafood and fish sauce. Some people may find banana blossom salad dry because of the flower’s texture, but I like the combination of the bitter petals with sweet-and-sour tamarind. My personal favorites are the green mango and green papaya salads. I’m often tempted to drink the sweet and zesty dressing with a spoon or scoop it into my mouth with a spoonful of rice!

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Photo of green papaya salad

Mee Katang (Stir-fried Noodles)
No Asian cuisine would be complete without a noodle dish. Mee katang, meaning Cantonese-style noodles, originates from the Chinese community in Cambodia, and is related to Chow Fun in China and Rad Na in Thailand. Wide rice noodles are stir fried with oyster or soy sauce, sugar, eggs (optional), meat (optional), and vegetables such as carrots, Chinese kale or broccoli, mushrooms, and baby corn. Mee katang is a cheap and delicious meal any time of the day!

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Photo of mee katang via Viet-Thai Restaurant

Khmer Coffee
Move over Thai iced coffee! While many of us associate iced coffee served with condensed milk with Thai cuisine, I only spotted two places serving iced coffee during my month in Thailand. Coffee with sweet milk, or Khmer coffee, is ubiquitous in Cambodia and can be prepared hot or cold. For someone like me who detests black coffee but loves coffee ice cream, Khmer coffee is the perfect pick me up!

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Photo of iced Khmer coffee by Vi via Raising Hammocks & Running Amok

Key Khmer Phrases

I have listed some useful Khmer phrases for vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians below with the Khmer words spelled phonetically. The third phrase is a bit challenging, but anyone who has heard the famous quotation from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “You don’t eat meat? That’s ok, I make lamb,” knows that often, especially when encountering other food cultures, it is necessary to specify exactly what types of meat you don’t eat. If you can’t memorize it, just learn the first phrase and remember that you can always point and shake your head. Bon appétit!

Khmer Phrase English Translation
K-nyom nyam boo. I am vegan/vegetarian.
K-nyom mun nyam sai. I do not eat meat.
K-nyom mun nyam sai mon, sai ko, sai chrook, aha krung ss mot, pong mon, ri tuk dos ko. I do not eat chicken, beef, pork, seafood, eggs, or dairy.
Som mun dak pr hok. Please don’t put fish sauce.

 

 

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