If I’m being completely honest, I still haven’t quite warmed to Khmer food. It may be Southeast Asia’s oldest cuisine – but Cambodian cooking is certainly not my favourite. I love a good fish amok, and I’d eat peppery beef lok lak with a soft egg on top for breakfast every day if I could, but apart from those few classics, I haven’t really branched out.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, food hygiene isn’t fantastic in Cambodia, and after being spoiled for six months with invariably delicious, fresh and clean street food in Chiang Mai, curbside dining in Phnom Penh is a bit confronting. Almost every expat I know has a story featuring amoebas, food-born bacteria or some kind of chronic stomach illness, so this is not something I’m imagining. I myself have had mild food poisoning at least twice.
Secondly, you can find just about any cuisine under the sun in Phnom Penh – including Nepalese, Iraqi and Russian, to name a few – and I intuitively gravitate towards comfort food (the English Sunday roast at Buffalo Sister being a good example!) whenever I’m stressed or overwhelmed. Thirdly, working full-time has reoriented my food priorities. I no longer feel like I’m ‘travelling in Cambodia’; convenience and reliability are the things I value now above all else. If we’re not cooking at home, we’ve found ourselves going back to the same few places, ordering the same few dishes again and again.
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Having said all this, giving Khmer food a go is crucial if you really want to sink your teeth into Cambodian culture. Sandwiched between two of the world’s greatest cuisines (Thai and Vietnamese), I often feel a bit sorry for Khmer cooking – but I think it’s also widely misunderstood. If you want to try traditional Cambodian fare in the capital (and I highly recommend you do), there are plenty of places you can eat with the confidence that your meal has been prepared hygienically using organic (or at least well-washed) produce. Here are six of my favourite restaurants to eat Khmer food in Phnom Penh…
1– Eleven One Kitchen, Street 460, TTP & Street 334, BKK
Located just a few blocks from our apartment, the shaded courtyard at Eleven One’s Tuol Tom Poung branch is our go-to lunch spot on hot days. The kitchen serves delicious smoothies (the banana and cashew nut is a personal favourite), and a good range of light, wholesome meals. Though not strictly Khmer, I always order the beef and banana flower salad, which is chock-full of herbs and served on top of crunchy wonton sheets. They also do a lovely fish or chicken amok, and a version of my favourite Cambodian dish, beef lok lak. The dinner menu is much bigger than the lunch menu, but the addition of seasonal monthly specials means there is always something new to try.
A new branch of Eleven One opened up on Street 334 in the BKK neighbourhood in late 2016.
2– Romdeng, Street 74
If you want to sample some of Cambodia’s more unique ingredients – I’m talking tarantulas, silk worms and crickets – in the comfort and safety of a swish restaurant, Romdeng is the perfect place to do it. (Side note: it’s amazing what a good dipping sauce can do!). For the less adventurous, there is also a good range of seafood mains, regional dishes such as Muslim beef curry and pork belly with Kampot peppercorns, and other Khmer favourites (look for the icon on the menu that denotes a ‘Student’s Favourite’ dish). Romdeng is a training restaurant run by social enterprise Mith Samlanh, so profits go to a good cause.
3– Malis, Norodom Boulevard
Malis seems to be a favourite among Khmer families – especially for Sunday breakfast – which gives it a very different, somewhat more ‘local’ feel than the other tourist/expat-centric restaurants on this list. If you’ve eaten breakfast on the street in Phnom Penh, many of the dishes and service elements here will feel familiar – but a whole lot more refined. Marketing itself as ‘living Cambodian cuisine’, Malis’ Samlor Khmer (noodle soup with fish gravy and lemongrass), bor bor (congee), and signature Kuy Teav Malis (prawn and pork noodle soup) are all made according to traditional recipes. With breakfast mains starting from $4 including a complimentary croissant, bottomless Chinese tea and sweet corn dessert, it’s fantastic value.
4– Friends the Restaurant, Street 13
Also run as a training restaurant by Mith Samlanh, Friends the Restaurant offers a tapas-style menu that flies the flag for Khmer, European and Middle Eastern flavours. Cambodian dishes include the Khmer Style Scotch Egg (a fertilised duck egg wrapped in a pork shell), stir-fried squid with basil and tamarind, and palm sugar and cinnamon braised duck. A favourite among expats, Friends also serves the famous Phnom Penh Iced Tea (tamarind juice mixed with five different spirits), and an awesome array of European-style desserts to satisfy your sugar and butter cravings.
5– Khmer Surin, Street 57
Khmer Surin was the first restaurant we ate at after arriving in Phnom Penh this year, so it holds a special place in my heart. Located on the ground floor of a hotel, the tiled dining room is beautifully decorated with dark wood and silks, and is absolutely overflowing with greenery. As a result, it’s always a few degrees cooler inside than out. Surin’s specialty dish is whole fish cooked with tamarind, but my favourite is the amok: fish steamed with coconut milk and fragrant spices, served as bite-sized portions in little banana leaf boats. They also have a separate Thai menu if it’s Isaan (eastern Thai) food you’re after.
6– Mok Mony, Street 294
Tailor-made for tourists, Mok Mony prepares Cambodian dishes that are tweaked for a western palate (and tummy). There are a range of Khmer soups on the menu, like sour pickled lime, plus grilled betel leaf rolls and a variety of Malaysian, Chinese and pan-Asian dishes. I especially like the vegetarian fare, including the smokey eggplant, which is sold as an appetiser but big enough to eat for a main. Mok Mony has a pretty unique drinks list too, with concoctions like sugarcane and water chestnut served over ice, and a tangerine, longan and lime freeze.
If restaurants aren’t your style and you’d rather eat street food in Phnom Penh, I highly recommend booking a food tour first. A knowing guide can help you identify what’s what, where’s safe to eat and how to order. Urban Forage is one company that offers personalised tours in the city. Do you like Khmer food? What’s your favourite restaurant in Phnom Penh?
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