Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · Diplomacy

Cross Culture · Food · Research 🇸🇬 Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail

History of Cambodian · Khmer Cuisine · Ancient Food from Mekong River & Tonle Sap Lake

Khmer cuisine refer to the food of Khmer people. Cambodian cuisine refer to the food of Cambodia which includes several other ethnicities such as Cham, hill tribesmen, Lao, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. Cambodian cuisine has Indian, Chinese and French influences due to the country's history.

Some well known Khmer dishes include prahok, fish amok, pomelo salad, samlar kako, coconut pineapple curry (samlar k'tis), coconut prahok dip and num banh chok. Most may sound unfamiliar but I shall explain more later in this post.

Mekong River & Tonle Sap Lake

The smallest country in Indochina, Cambodia has Thailand on its west and northwest, Laos to its north and Vietnam on its east. Access to the sea is via the Gulf of Thailand on its southwest coast.

The Mekong Lowlands along the Mekong River and around Tonle Sap Lake is the heartland of Cambodia. Most of the population live here and are devoted to rice cultivation. Fish and water life from the Mekong and The Great Lake (Tonle Sap) are main sources of protein for Cambodians. Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh is located at the intersection of Tonle Sap River and Mekong River.


Today, Cambodia has about 17 million people, most of whom live along the Mekong River and around Tonle Sap Lake. Nearly 2 million people live in the capital city Phnom Penh.

The population of Cambodia is 93% Khmer - its homogeneity is unique among Southeast Asian countries. Cambodia has a 4% Cham Muslim minority. The remainder are hill tribes, Chinese, Lao and Vietnamese. Buddhism is Cambodia's state religion and 97% of Cambodians profess to be Buddhists.

Khmers migrated from today's Isaan Thailand from around 200 BC. Through the millenniums, Khmers were influenced by Indian empires (e.g. Chola), maritime Southeast Asian empires (Srivijaya and Majapahit), and Tai people who migrated from southern China. French influence came only in the 19th century.

Funan · 1st - 6th Century (50 - 550)

The first empire in Indochina was Funan, a Hindu empire which existed from 50 - 550. Funan territory stretched from the Isthmus of Kra eastwards to the South China Sea. Straddling the trade routes between India and China, Funan became prosperous.

Chenla · 6th - 8th Century (550 - 802)

The Funan empire fell to the Hindu Chenla empire which lasted from 550 to 802. In 681, the Chenla empire itself split into two - the Land Chenla in the north and Water Chenla in the south.

King Jayavarman (657 - 681) was the last king of unified Chenla before it split in two.

Angkor Empire · 9th - 15th Century (802 - 1431)

The Khmer or Angkor empire was founded by King Jayavarman II in 802 by uniting Water Chenla and Land Chenla. King Jayavarman II wanted the Khmer empire to reflect the heyday of the Chenla empire under King Jayavarman (the first), hence he adopted the name.

King Suryavarman (1113 - 1150) built Angkor Wat.

At its zenith, during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (1181 - 1281), the Khmer empire was the largest in Indochina, stretching from the Isthmus of Kra to present day Vietnam in the east i.e. larger even than the ancient Funan empire. King Jayavarman VII ran his Khmer empire according to Buddhist precepts.

It is often heard that Cambodian cuisine is like Thai cuisine. Historically, it should be the other way around as much of Thailand was under Funan, Chenla and Khmer empires for long periods of time.

Kingdom of Cambodia 1431 - 1863

From the 15th century, parts of the Khmer empire were lost to the Thai Ayutthaya empire in the west and the Laotian Lan Xang empire in the north. The kingdom of Cambodia was founded in 1431 from what remained of the former glorious Khmer empire.

Kingdom of Cambodia territory used to include the Mekong River delta until the French redrew the boundary in 1863. This explains the similarities between Cambodian cuisine and southern Vietnamese cuisine.

Kingdom of Cambodia · French Protectorate 1863 -  1953

The kingdom of Cambodia's south coast was assigned to the French protectorate of Cochinchina, which together with Laos, Tonkin and Annam formed French Indochina. Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953.

Khmer & Cambodian Cuisine

The Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake are central to Cambodian life. 
Rice from the rice fields (processed into various forms) is at the heart of almost every Cambodian meal. The sweet staple is eaten with a few savoury, sourish, spicy side dishes and soup. Many of the side dishes are made with fish from the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake which are the main sources of protein in a Cambodian meal. 

Prahok, a pungent umami savoury salty fermented fish paste is used as seasoning, condiment and ingredient. Kroeung or mixed spices is the foundation of many Cambodian dishes much like Indian masala and curry paste.

The roots of Cambodian and Khmer cuisine began well before the arrival of chili pepper in Indochina in the 16th century (brought by Europeans from their colonies in central America). Unlike Thai cuisine which more fully embraced chili, hot peppers remain at the side and mainly as a condiment in Cambodian dishes. So, Khmer cuisine is a good reference for insights into what Indochinese cuisine was like before the arrival of chili.

Cambodia and Vietnam share some common dishes because the Mekong Delta of today's Vietnam was part of the Khmer empire and Kingdom of Cambodia before the arrival of the French. Both Cambodia and Vietnam became French colonies, so they share some French inspired dishes too like baguettes. 

Prahok is the soul of Cambodian cuisine that connects it with the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake. 
It is a fermented fish paste made from Mekong River fish, mainly trey riel (Siamese mud carp). Cambodia’s currency, the Riel is named after trey riel.

Prahok is an important source of protein for Cambodians. As it is fermented food, regular prahok consumption promotes healthy, resilient guts and immune system. About 10% of fish caught in Cambodia every year is made into prahok.

To make prahok, the fish is crushed, salted and fermented in baskets. The liquid run off from fermenting fish is used as fish sauce. The drained fish is dried and salted again before being left to ferment in containers for up to two years.

Prahok has an intense pungent fish flavour. Prahok is used in many ways in Cambodian cuisine, as ingredient, seasoning, sauce or dip. For example, prahok is blended together with raw chili pepper and palm sugar to make a savoury, sweet, spicy dip. The umami savoury flavours of Cambodian dishes often come from prahok. Cambodians grew up and cannot go without prahok while it remains an acquired taste for visitors from overseas.

Fish amok is often cited as Cambodia's national dish. It is a blend of mashed or chunks of 
river fish, coconut milk and curry spices in a banana leaf cup, steamed to make a savoury sweet mildly spicy mousse-like custard. Dressed with coconut cream and garnished with kaffir lime leaf before serving. 

Fish amok is a staple of people living around Tonlé Sap and Mekong River. Besides fresh river fish, the soul of fish amok is the kroeung paste (masala or curry spices) made with shallots, galangal, rhizome root, garlic, red chili pepper, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, lemongrass, fish sauce, etc.

The rich flavours of the dish come from sweet coconut milk, sweet fish, fragrant banana leaf, and all the aromatics from the myriad spices and herbs. It similar to otak otak of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Pomelo salad is quarters of pomelo flesh with chopped cabbage, bell pepper, cucumber slices, green onion slices, fresh mint leaves, cilantro, Thai basil leaves, etc., tossed in a savoury sweet, sourish, spicy, nutty aromatic sauce made with 
finely chopped roasted peanuts, finely grated unsweetened coconut, fresh lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, mashed garlic clove, minced green Thai chili, etc.

Made with humble local ingredients in the traditional way pamelo salad exemplifies Cambodian food which is all about hand cutting, crushing, pounding, mixing vegetables, roots, fruits, herbs, nuts - a lot of preparatory work.   

Samlar kako soup is considered one of Cambodia's national dishes. Samlar kako soup is made by boiling green kroeung (masala or mixed spice paste), prahok, toasted ground rice with either fish, pork or chicken, vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Samlar kako soup can be served as a one-pot dish as it is substantial, filling and a well-balanced meal on its own. There are vegetarian varieties where fish and meat are omitted.

Num banh chok is Khmer rice noodle in a bowl of curry or soup garnished with an abundance of vegetables, flowers and herbs such as beansprout, water hyacinth, sesbania, water lily, cucumber, lead tree leaf, banana flower, green papaya, long beans, lime, raw chili padi, dried chili. 

Most num banh chok shops offer a range of curries and soups such as samlor namya, samlor Khmer (coconut milk, fresh milk), samlor kary (curry of chicken, offal, unlaid egg, pork blood curd, ), etc.

Num banh chok is the staple Khmer noodle dish with the same stature to Cambodians as the pho of Vietnam, wanton mee of Hong Kong, bak chor mee of Singapore, etc. Priced usually less than USD2 a serving (price vary according to type of curry or soup).

Num pang pâté is Cambodia's answer to the Lao khao jee pate and Vietnamese banh mi, all three countries were part of the former French Indochina. 

It's greasy melted butter, crisp pickled vegetables, meaty pâté, strips of luncheon meat, pulled stewed lean pork, chili paste, spicy sauce, savoury fish sauce, shredded carrot, cucumber, spring onion, cilantro, etc., slotted inside a crusty baguette. Of course, there are lots of variations on the fillings like green papaya, sardines, stewed pork belly, roast pork, etc.


This post is a work in progress. I am adding more Cambodian dishes to this list.

Written by Tony Boey on 9 July 2022


Image of prahok courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of fish amok courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of pamelo salad courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Samlor Korko courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of num banh chok courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of num banh chok courtesy of Flickr. Image of Cambodian meal courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Indochina courtesy of Wikipedia. Ethnic map of Cambodia courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Southeast Asia courtesy of Flickr. Map of Southeast Asia 900AD courtesy of Wikipedia. Drainage map of Cambodia courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Num Pang Pate courtesy of Flickr. Map of Chenla empire courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of French Indochina courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Funan courtesy of Wikipedia.

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