Cambodian cuisine, tracing to the ancient Angkor period, offers a unique flavor profile, thanks to its distinctive blend of spices. Turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves infuse depth into dishes, reflecting Cambodia’s rich botanical heritage. Despite adversities, the Khmer people have preserved their culinary traditions, creating a delectable array of dishes that embody their love for their land and indomitable spirit.
The connection between spices and food
The uniqueness of Khmer dishes lies in the creative use of Cambodian spices. These spices not only add flavor to the dishes but also give them their distinctive character. Here are some spices that make Khmer dishes stand out:
Chili peppers, known as Capsicum annuum, are a staple in Cambodian cuisine. They arrived in Southeast Asia in the 17th century, thanks to the Spanish and Portuguese traders. The spiciness varies with the size, with smaller ones being hotter. They add a tangy flavor to soups and are an essential ingredient in hot sauces. Despite not being as spicy as Thai cuisine, Cambodian dishes often include chili peppers, following the Khmer saying, “not spicy — not delicious.”
Star Anise, or Illicium verum, is a star-shaped spice that originates from an Asian evergreen tree. It’s similar in taste to Anise, and is often used in Cambodian cooking. At Malis, Chef Luu Hong uses Star Anise in his fine dining cuisine recipes such as caramelized braised pork belly and Khmer curry.
Ginger, or Zingiber officinale, also known as Kha Nhei in local language, is a key ingredient in Cambodian cuisine. It’s often used in soups or marinated with fish or chicken. It can also be stir-fried or used in pork stew.
Kampot Pepper, or Piper nigrum ‘Kampot’, is one of Cambodia’s most prized exports. Grown exclusively in the sunny and humid province of Kampot, this pepper is known for its sweet and unique flavor profile. It’s so revered that it’s in demand by the world’s finest restaurants. Kampot pepper is used extensively in Cambodian cooking. Chef Mongkol at Malis uses it in dishes like grilled beef steak, braised pork belly, and spare ribs pork with honey.
Galangal, locally known as Romdeng and scientifically as Alpinia galanga, is a close cousin of ginger. Known for its sharp citrusy and piney flavor, it’s used extensively in marinades, soups, and stir-fries. It’s an essential component of the Kreung paste, a Cambodian curry paste.
Fingerroot, or Boesenbergia rotunda, also known as Khchiey, is another rhizome used in Khmer cuisine. It’s used in the preparation of Amok paste, a traditional Cambodian curry paste.
Turmeric, known locally as Lamiet and scientifically as Curcuma longa, is a vital ingredient in Khmer cuisine. It’s a key ingredient in the preparation of the curry paste Kreung and gives the paste its distinctive yellow color.
Tamarind is a key component in Cambodian cooking, lending a sweet and sour flavor to dishes. It’s a crucial ingredient in sour soups like Samlar Machu.
Lemongrass, or Cymbopogon, is a zesty, citrusy herb that’s a critical ingredient in many Cambodian dishes. It forms the basis of the Cambodian spice pastes, with Kreung being the most popular.
Holy Basil & Thai Basil
Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, and Thai Basil, Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora, are both common in Cambodian cuisine. Holy Basil is used primarily in stir-fries, while Thai Basil is indispensable in Cambodian soups.
Coriander, or Coriandrum sativum, also known as cilantro, is often added to Cambodian broths. Its earthy aroma is one of the key flavor-building components.
Experience Traditional Cambodian Food
For those who want to experience traditional Cambodian food at its best, there is no better place than Malis. This restaurant, located in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, offers a taste of Cambodia’s rich culinary heritage. Here, you can savor authentic Khmer dishes, made with the freshest ingredients and an array of aromatic Cambodian spices.
At Malis, the motto is: Living Cambodian cuisine. This is reflected in the restaurant’s commitment to preserving the traditional flavors and cooking techniques of Khmer food. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a seasoned foodie, Malis offers an unforgettable culinary experience.
Embark on this journey and discover the secret of Khmer food for yourself!