Often overshadowed by its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian food also boasts flavors that you sure don’t want to miss! Also known as Khmer cuisine, Cambodian cuisine is deeply influenced by the country’s natural geography. The Mekong River – measuring an expansive and impressive 4,350 km long – begins in Tibet, travels through the Himalayas, flows past southern China, proceeds into Southeast Asia until it finally reaches into Cambodia. In the haze of an ending summer, fishing season in September begins where fishermen can often be found spending their days gathering freshwater fish migrating northwards.
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You may have heard of Amok, a famous Khmer style curry made with lemongrass, various chilis, coconut, amok leaves, served cradled in a banana leaf. And though seafood has been, and will always be central to Cambodian cuisine, Cambodia also offers its fair share of vegetarian cuisine. Owing, in no small part, to the country’s 97.8% Buddhist population and the country’s agricultural production, vegetarian travelers to Cambodia will undoubtedly have plenty to choose from.
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Because of the country’s warm climate, rice was once and has remained a steady source of income for Cambodian farmers, as well as a trusty staple in their diet. But think beyond bland white bowls of rice and think instead of deserts made of sticky rice and rice flour, affordable street food snacks that will make your mouth instantly water. In fact, many of these dishes are not only vegetarian but vegan as well. And if you’re gluten-free, the wealth of sugar palms, coconut trees, bananas, and rice paddies that lay the foundation of Cambodian cuisine makes it a perfect match for you!
What to look out for
Like many other Southeast countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, all of which frequently use fish sauce in their cuisine, be warned that just because a dish doesn’t contain meat, it might contain some variant of seafood.
The main ingredients to look out for include but are not limited to fish sauce, oyster sauce, chicken powder, and prawns, which are often added to the flavor, even the most innocent looking plate of vegetable dishes. Many restaurants, especially those with English menus, notify customers when these ingredients are used in their dishes. It’s always useful as a vegetarian traveler to write down a couple Khmer phrases that you can pull out when the time comes.
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1. Vegetable Fried Rice, or Vegetable Noodles paired with a Vegetable Stir-Fry
An essential dish at almost any restaurant, vegetable fried rice, or noodles, with any sort of stir fry, is a safe bet for vegetarian travelers visiting Cambodia. If you have a vegan friend with you, make sure to ask them to hold off on the egg and voilá!
2. Nom Ka Chai (Chive Cakes)
A popular street food sold at many food stalls around Cambodia, Nom Ka Chai is a staple among vegetarians and vegans alike. If you’ve never had it before, think of it as a light savory pastry stuffed to the brim with chives and deep-fried in oil. If you get a chance to try it fresh, it’ll be hard to exercise restraint, but try to be careful when you bite into it!
Like many other Cambodian foods – that is, neither wholly savory nor overly sweet – Krolan is a traditional street food found in Cambodia. Think sticky rice explicitly was chosen from the Battambang and Kratie Provinces, cooked with fresh shredded coconut, with black beans, all folded into one another, and cooked in a bamboo stalk. Once it’s cooked, you’ll taste a unique blend of smoky, sweet, and savory rice on the inside.
4. Dumlowng (Steamed Sweet Potato):
Unlike the sweet potatoes, you might be used to, sweet potatoes in Cambodia come in a variety of colors and sizes. Purple, orange, white, you name it! A perfect light snack that will keep you going for all the traveling that you’ll be doing. Not to mention relatively low in calories so that you can try all the desserts you want later guilt-free.
Last but not least, let us introduce the Cambodian national dish. Traditionally made with hallowed freshwater fish and coconut milk, stewed in a plethora of spices, vegetarian and vegan versions can also be found all around the country. Often, restaurants will substitute fish with various vegetables
Nom Kong (Glazed caramel donuts):
Instead of wheat flour, these donuts are made from rice flour, which gives them that bouncy, chewy texture that leaves you wanting more. They are also glazed in a thick, crunchy, and glistening layer of palm sugar caramel. If you have a sweet tooth, we definitely won’t pass up an opportunity to try these.
Like so many dishes in Khmer cuisine, Akor cake is made of rice flour and takes a soft yet firm cake-like texture. With palm fruit added in, not only are the round soft yellow cakes sweet, but they are also fruity and tangy. Topped with some coconut, you have a perfect dessert on your hands.
Nom An Som Ang (Rice and banana baked in a banana leaf):
Nom An Som Ang is a dessert that is made up of a soft banana encased in soft, chewy, sticky rice and then wrapped in a banana leaf. When they are cooked, they get nice and caramelly and are unlike anything you’ve ever had. We promise.
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And there you have it! A quick introduction and guide for vegetarian travelers in Cambodia. Let us know which foods are your favorite!