We trooped to Phnom Penh, the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, for the 32nd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). As the official hotel partner of the Philippine Esports Organization (PESO) and the Philippines’ Esports National Team, Sibol, Hotel101 Group was invited to personally witness our esports athletes battle it out in the SEA Games which happened last May 4 to 16, 2023.
Although we were just there for a few days, enough to witness the opening ceremony and a few games, we were not short of sampling the best of what Cambodian food has to offer, through our meetings and socials with some of the Philippine delegation.
A Glimpse of Cambodian Cuisine
Cambodian cuisine, just like the cuisine of any of its Southeast Asian counterparts, is deeply rooted in rich culture, history, and traditions, as well as influences from its neighboring countries. Cambodian food is a harmonious blend of flavors, textures, and aromatic spices. This culinary tradition reflects the country’s agricultural abundance, the resilience of its people, and the deep connection between food and community.
Dating back centuries, it has evolved through a fascinating fusion of indigenous ingredients and culinary practices, as well as influences from neighboring culinary powerhouses like Thailand, Vietnam, and China. There are also traces of French cuisine from the time when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. (The baguette, or the long French bread, is a part of the cuisine and has come to be Cambodia’s national bread.)
The result is a cuisine that stands on its own, characterized by its unique balance of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors, as well as its emphasis on freshness and simplicity.
Food holds great cultural significance in Cambodia, where meals are seen as communal experiences that bring families and friends together. Traditional recipes are often passed down through generations, creating a sense of continuity and preserving the country’s culinary heritage. From vibrant street food stalls to elaborate feasts prepared for special occasions, Cambodian cuisine reflects the country’s cultural traditions, social customs, and spiritual beliefs.
At the heart of the country’s cuisine lies rice, just like the rest of Southeast Asia, a staple that occupies a central place on the dining table. It is the foundation of many dishes, accompanied by a diverse array of proteins including fish, pork, and chicken. Fresh herbs and spices such as lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and turmeric add layers of fragrance and depth to the dishes, while aromatic pastes and sauces like Kroeung and Prahok lend distinct flavors.
Cambodian food is renowned for its signature dishes that embody the essence of the country’s culinary identity. From the fragrant Fish Amok, a delicately spiced fish curry steamed in banana leaves, to the comforting noodle soup Kuy Teav, each dish tells a story of the land and its people.
And in recent years, it has garnered international recognition, captivating the taste buds of food enthusiasts around the globe. As Cambodian cuisine continues to gain popularity, efforts are being made to preserve and promote its culinary traditions, ensuring that the legacy of this unique gastronomic heritage endures for generations to come.
Malis by Chef Luu Meng
One of the chefs behind the promotion of Cambodian cuisine is Chef Luu Meng. Chef Luu Meng is constantly experimenting with flavors and textures and digging out his country’s culinary secrets to be shared in the Malis kitchen.
Malis is a Cambodian restaurant that opened in 2004 in Phnom Penh, the first Cambodian fine dining restaurant in the city. It is a high-end restaurant that boasts a “Living Cambodian Cuisine.” “By researching, practicing, and promoting Cambodian cuisine, Malis aims to safeguard the nation’s food heritage for years to come.”
We got to try Takeo Sausages which were homemade pork sausages flavored with Malis spices and fine coconut shavings, served with a sweet chili sauce; the Green Mango and Smoked Fish which was a savory green mango salad with local smoked-dried fish for a mouthwatering combination of flavors.
The Chicken Curry Steamed in Lotus Leaf, which was chicken red curry and rice wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed to bring out vibrant flavors, was not your ordinary curry. We also got to sample Saraman Beef. Rich and delicious, this recipe uses a special blend of kroeung cooked very slowly with coconut cream until the beef is tender and fully infused with flavors.
We ended our dining experience here at Malis with Cambodian Ice Cream (Kampot pepper, malis, and coconut), It was homemade ice cream with seasonal Cambodian fruits.
Sombok by Chef Kimsan Pol
Sombok showcases the exceptional talents of the famed Chef Kimsan Pol, a local legend in the culinary scene as “she has skillfully risen to the top of an industry typically dominated by males.”
Chef Kimsan has created an entirely new category for authentic Khmer fine dining which she first started at a Siem Reap restaurant called “Embassy”. She has brought their culinary skills to Phnom Penh at Sombok Restaurant.
Sombok is a celebration of the creativity of Khmer women and the best cuisine Cambodia has to offer. The name, Sombok, means “nest” and conveys the care and nourishment the restaurant provides its patrons.
The dishes we sampled included the Amok bangkang, which was river lobster pan-seared, salmon roe and creamy sabayon sauce; Stir fried seafood with chili paste which was stir-fried king prawn, squid, sea bass, salmon with chili sambal, spring onion, celery, fresh milk and coriander and roasted duck which was marinated duck with Sombok spices served with lime pickle sauce.
Every Day is A Wonder
Cambodia is a mix of old and new. While Cambodia is more than Phnom Penh, one leaves the country with more wonder, especially if you’ve just seen, experienced, or even tasted a part of it.
Certainly, Cambodia leaves you more to wonder – with the famed UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat and the whole Angkor Archaeological Park with its ancient Buddhist temple complex and archaeological sites, some 300 or so kilometers northwest from Phnom Penh in Siem Reap, and a whole lot more places, through the Mekong Delta and those around the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. And these places would give more depth and experience to understand Cambodian culture, its people, and its food.
A few days in Phnom Penh might not give justice to what Cambodian cuisine truly represents but given the time constraints and a handful of choices, I would bet on these restaurants to give you a glimpse and flare of what Khmer cuisine is or what it represents today – a wonderful mix of old and new.