Cambodian cuisine is one of the world’s oldest living cuisines, and is regarded by many as one of the healthiest and most balanced cuisines on the planet. With an emphasis on simplicity, freshness, seasonality and regionalism – Cambodian food has won praise for its elegant and understated use of spice, its harmonious arrangement of contrasting flavours, textures and temperatures within the overall meal rather than a single dish, and its thoughtful and, at times extravagant presentation of dishes with plenty of herbs, leaves, pickles, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments.
Like in Vietnam, the staple food for Cambodians is rice, and today rice is consumed by most Cambodians daily and with all meals, utilising a great number of cooking styles and techniques. In fact, Cambodians eat more rice than any other people in the world: the Khmer expression for "Have you eaten?" (nyam bay?) is "Have you yet eaten rice?". There are over a hundred words and phrases for rice in the Khmer language as well as hundreds of varieties of indigenous Khmer rice, from the fragrant jasmine-scented Malis rice, to countless types of wild, brown and sticky rice. Sticky rice is most often consumed as a dessert, often simply with slices of tropical fruit like mango or durian, and coconut milk.
In addition, rice is eaten all day long in the form of street-side snacks, such as deep-fried rice cakes with chives and spinach, for breakfast, as in Cambodia's famous rice noodle soup kuyteav or rice porridge, and in many desserts. Plain white rice is served with nearly every family meal, typically served with grilled freshwater fish, a samlor or soup, and an assortment of seasonal herbs, salad leaves and vegetables.
Khmer cuisine, like its people, has shown remarkable resilience in the face of adversity and challenges. It must be reminded that during the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, Cambodian cuisine was almost wiped out and forgotten, and it's only been quite recently that Khmer cuisine has made something of a revival. Living standards have dramatically improved over the last fifteen years, and today several cooking courses are now run in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, and other popular tourist areas, giving visitors the chance to share the culinary secret of the Khmers.
A common ingredient, almost a national institution, is a pungent type of fermented fish paste used in many dishes, a distinctive flavoring known as prahok. It's an acquired taste for most Westerners, but is an integral part of Khmer cuisine and is included in many dishes or used as a dipping sauce. The liberal use of prahok, which adds a salty tang to many dishes, is a characteristic which distinguishes Khmer cuisine from that of its neighbours. Prahok can be prepared many ways and eaten as a dish on its own right. Prahok jien is fried and usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can also be eaten with dips, vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice. Prahok gop or Prahok ang or is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under a fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
When prahok is not used, kapǐ, a kind of fermented shrimp paste is used instead. Khmer cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups and stir-fried dishes, and as a dipping sauce.