The true flavours of Cambodia are found on the street.
A huge part of life in Southeast Asia is outdoors. Whether you want a haircut, to do your weekly shopping or even sharpen your knives; you’ll find it outside.
Street food in Cambodia ranges from small childhood snacks to meals that you would be happy to receive in a fine dining restaurant. The beauty of street food and what attracts foodies from across the world is the quality and the price.
While Cambodian street food is often overshadowed by its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia enjoys an influence of both cuisines that are brought into one. You’ll notice the flavors as they appear on your palette; pandan leaves and spicy curries from Thailand and lemongrass and fresh leaves from Vietnam.
What Do You Define as Street Food?
Street food is generally defined as something that is ready-to-eat, however, in Asia, that line is very blurred. Street food in Southeast Asia is anything that is outside. This can be a restaurant with tables and chairs or a small cart – or a cart with tables and chairs piled on top!
The possibilities are endless. And on your Cambodia tour, there are some dishes that you cannot go without.
Where to Get Street Food in Phnom Penh
Considered the beating heart of any city in Southeast Asia, one of the best places to get amazing, clean street food is the market. Phnom Penh’s Central Market is one of the oldest in the city and is filled by street food stalls where you’ll find a great variety of cheap local favourites.
Surrounded by electronics, hairdressers and kitchen essentials, it may not seem like the most conventional eatery, but it is definitely the most local experience you can get while in Phnom Penh.
Another option is the Russian Market, named as such because of the influx of Russian travellers in the 1980s. The market is a lot more touristy than Central Market, however, the street food is some of the best you’ll find in the city! In between the souvenirs and elephant pants, you’ll find a great variety of dishes, some will lure you in; some will freak you out.
Deep-fried cricket anyone? It’s very high in protein.
What to Eat in Phnom Penh
A staple among travellers that can be found in the streets of Phnom Penh’s backpacker area, fish amok is perhaps Cambodia’s most famous dish.
Light in flavour and creamy in texture, fish amok caters to a western palate as a simple curry dish with kaffir lime and lemongrass. The dish is traditionally served in bamboo leaves that, interestingly, the fish is actually steamed in to give its delicate flakiness.
Pork and Rice
Considered to be the national breakfast food, pork and rice is Cambodia’s answer to bacon rolls. In the Khmer language, the dish is called bai sach chrouk. It’s a staple for any roadside vendor across the country.
The pork is grilled to perfection and served up with broken rice and cucumber, occasionally you will get a fried egg. The dish is accompanied by a small bowl of soup, which for locals, is considered the only way to finish the rice.
You will be able to get bai sach chrouk from 6 to 9 am. This is considered the end of the morning, at 9 am, your local street food vendor might not have any meat left by this time.
Bamboo Sticky Rice
A savoury-sweet snack that is a household favourite in Cambodia, bamboo sticky rice, known in Khmer as kralan, embraces the tradition of steaming foods in just about anything you can get your hands on.
The glutinous rice is packed into a stick of bamboo with either black beans or mung beans with coconut. The hearty snack is available and eaten at any time of day. Depending on how hungry you are, you can choose between small, medium and fat bamboo sticks to satisfy your sticky rice cravings.
Fun fact: locals will tell you that this snack was used to keep Angkorian soldiers energised!
Snails – you either hate them or you love them. In Southeast Asia, eating kilos of snails washed down with a few beers is one of the best ways to soak up the social culture of the region.
Often misinterpreted as coming from the French, snails have been a national staple in the Cambodian diet since ancient times. They were dubbed as a poor man’s snack; however, they are now a street food favourite after they were eaten as a source of protein during the Khmer Rouge.
Snails are the sort of street food that you will only touch if you are adventurous, but once you try one, you’ll want to try them all! There are also numerous ways to have your snails cooked with tasty options of garlic and chilli, a spicy gravy sauce with ginger or boiled with pepper and garlic – a personal favourite.
A popular way of eating snails is to get a bucket from a street food vendor who will have thousands piled up on a cart. You can try them to see how fresh they are before you purchase the bucket which will average at around 50 cents.
Another for the adventurous. When you are travelling, it is common knowledge to avoid seafood but there is a knack to it!
It’s important to know that there is a particular time for particular street foods. For fresh skewers, you can walk around the market around 6 pm and they will just be cooked. If you walk around later, you will get the ones that have been sitting out for a while.
These tasty grilled skewers are highly recommended but only when they are fresh off the grill to ensure there will be no food poisoning for you while on your trip.
In both the Russian Market and Central Market, there will be some stalls with whole prawns and whole squid grilled to perfection. You’ll have the option to dip this in lemon chilli or a sweet chilli sauce.
Tapping into the world of Cambodian desserts will be heaven for those with a sweet tooth. You might just be surprised by the number of desserts on offer – it doesn’t stop at mango sticky rice!
Mango sticky rice is a favourite among travellers for its simplicity; the sweetness of the mango with the coconut sauce that is balanced by the chewiness of sticky rice that has been sitting for a while. It feels wholesome and indulgent, so you come back for more. However, the real street food favourites take it to the next level.
Think beans, fruit and glutinous rice with thick gloopy coconut sauce and you have just about every dessert in Cambodia. Favourites are mung beans cooked into a sticky pudding topped with coconut sauce and pumpkin custard, a dessert that is strictly reserved for holidays.
When you see jelly in Cambodia, you may think that the natural sweeteners have been left behind, but actually, they have all been made from fruits or plants. Be careful, this may be where durian, the smelliest fruit in existence, will make a sneaky appearance.
A favourite on the streets of Phnom Penh is rolled banana cake: glutinous rice wrapped around small sweet bananas and steamed to make the rolled cake. This dessert is simple, naturally sweet and a hit among university students and children.
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