When I visited China last year, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the food. Bizarre offcuts that would usually be thrown away, strange gunge-like soups that reminded me of childhood Saturday morning TV and grey floating desserts – I didn’t exactly look forward to dinner time. So when I heard that I would be coming to Cambodia, I was a little apprehensive that the food would be along the same lines. I was so wrong.
Cambodian cuisine is varied and delicious. I don’t pretend to be any expert, and I recognise that the dishes I have eaten are probably not your average family meal, but I can say that the flavours are absolutely delicious. Lemongrass, coriander, ginger, black pepper and galangal feature heavily in Khmer dishes, alongside coconut. And Khmer food is just the start – the cities are a melting pot of Asian and European cuisine, with some stand-out French restaurants in particular.
If you’re looking for a place to eat out in Phnom Penh, these are my recommendations:
Romdeng – This restaurant is staffed by former street children, who have been taken in and trained in vocational skills such as cooking in order to give their life new direction and purpose. It has a stunning al-fresco seating area with lots of fans to keep you cool, and serves contemporary Khmer cuisine – taking traditional dishes and giving them a new twist. Those we tried were absolutely delicious, from the national fish dish amok to a spicy beef and lemongrass stir fry. And of course we had to give the deep fried tarantulas a try… Interesting! The drinks offerings are just as creative as the food, I enjoyed a fresh lime soda with liquid sugar to add according to taste, one colleague had a pumpkin and mango smoothie, and another had coconut juice – still in its natural form, just shaved and with a hole punched in the top. It was great!
Java Cafe – This café is nestled on one of the busiest streets in Phnom Penh, but is a haven of excellent food, ‘proper’ coffee, free and fast wi-fi and of course – air con. Java is a trendy, European style café which doubles up as a bakery downstairs and art gallery upstairs. I went here a few times for various things, but particularly enjoyed the grilled lime chicken salad and passionfruit soda. Everything here is prepared with purified water too, so on hot days you can enjoy a light salad without worrying whether you should be eating it or not. Java is very popular with tourists, expats and well-heeled locals, and definitely worth a try.
The Willow – Our hotel actually had a great food menu, and apparently is a bit of a hidden gem in Phnom Penh. They are particularly known for their creative sandwich offerings, which are made with thick hunks of focaccia and come served on wooden platters. I had a chicken and mango sandwich with coriander mayonnaise, and it was so tasty I finished it before I even thought to take a picture… I did remember in time for the fruit salad though, which was equally delicious and oh so bright!
Some other places to check out in Phnom Penh would be Comme a la Maison – a beautiful French restaurant and bakery – and Blue Pumpkin. In Siem Reap, try the Asian Palace or Terrasse des Elephants for delicious Khmer food.
As you can see, mouth-watering! I’ve bought some local spices to bring home and try to recreate some Khmer dishes, here’s hoping they’ll be as tasty as the original.
Have you ever tried Cambodian food?