Siem Reap may be best known as a jumping-off point for explorations of the 12th-century temples at Angkor Wat, but the city also has much to offer to the epicurean. From tiny streetside cafes to gourmet eateries, this cultural center provides the backdrop for Khmer culinary adventures. Khmer cooking has a rich past that is evident in its range of flavors, from the staples of fish and rice to the aromatic kreung herb paste, prahok fish paste, coconut milk and turmeric that flavor many dishes.
Kreung or kroeung paste, an herbal blend, is often used to season fish and meat dishes. This paste contains a spicy, sweet and tangy combination of garlic, shallots, limes, lemongrass, red chilies, fish sauce, peanuts, eggs, coconut milk, sugar and green herbs such as saw leaf, sweet basil and rice paddy herb. The mixture is pounded by hand using a stone mortar and pestle.
Prahok or prahoc, a paste or sauce made from fermented fish, flavors many Khmer dishes. Traditionally, prahok is created by smashing fermented mudfish, salt and rice with bare feet. This salty condiment is often eaten with meats, chili or boiled vegetables and tastes somewhat similar to the fish sauce — nam pla or nuoc mam — used to flavor Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
Fish, along with rice, is a staple food due to its wide availability in the country’s many rivers and rice paddies and Tonle Sap lake. Perhaps the most famous is amok, the national dish of Cambodia. Amok contains a mixture of kreung and sliced white fish, which is steamed in a banana-leaf cup to form a mousse-like cake. Other fish specialities to try in Siem Reap include grilled fish, or trey aing; fried fish with vegetables ,or trey chean neung spe. Fish are also used to make spicy sausage, once a dish reserved for the upper-class, and num banh choc, a fish and rice noodle soup often eaten for breakfast. Fish dishes are generally served with that other staple of Cambodian cooking, rice.
Where to Eat
The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and Food and Wine magazines recommend trying the Khmer cuisine at Meric. Named after a Cambodian pepper used to flavor Khmer food, the restaurant offers a changing Khmer tasting menu featuring specialties such as stir-fried frog with fresh ginger, pan-fried broma fish, dried snake, pumpkin saraman curry, and coconut prawn salad. The New York Times and Frommer’s suggest the Khmer cuisine at Viroth’s Hotel , a Siem Reap restaurant that offers deboned amok fish and outdoor dining.