Squished between culinary heavyweights Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is often overlooked when it comes to food. But once you’ve sampled Khmer cuisine, you won’t turn back.
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Culinary Capital: Kampot & Kep
The French colonial influence is felt more strongly in these southeastern cities than the rest of Cambodia, through both the architecture, the makeup of the tourists, the the food. The rural farmland surrounding these two outposts is considered home to the highest-quality version of the most essential of seasonings: pepper. The humble peppercorn is elevated to new heights in the wide flatlands of the Kampot countryside, where it comes in pink, green, white, and black. It is revered by top chefs all over the world, and Kampot locals are fiercely proud of the plantations that dot the countryside.
Mosey a little further east to Kep, a seaside town famous for its crab, and suddenly a match in culinary heaven is born: Pepper Crab.
Pepper crab is made in Kep using green peppercorns, which are immature, unripened peppercorns that can’t be found outside of Cambodia because they dry out and the flavor changes after just a couple of days. Pepper crab consists of freshly-caught crab fried in a delicious garlicky-chili sauce that’s heavy on (you guessed it) pepper! One bite and the sweetness of the crab meat, the warmth of the chili and the kapow! kick of pepper will send your tatebuds to seafood heaven. Also worth trying in Kep are the myriad prawn dishes, served with yummy curries and lots of that famous Kampot pepper. Yum!
Beef Lok Lak
Where the fish is a light explosion of flavor, beef lok lak is a savory roundhouse kick to the mouth. The star of this dish is undoubtedly the beef, stir-fried in a thick brown sauce that’s the warm blanket of beef sauces. It’s served with a tangy lime-pepper dipping sauce that’s the perfect foil to the uber-savory beef. This was one of my favorite dishes in Cambodia, and one I recreated for friends and family at home with yummy success. Khmer Noodles To get the most authentic version of this dish, seek out the women with buckets and pots dangling from a pole balanced over their shoulders. Those buckets contain the individual components of this dish: thin rice noodles, fresh veggies like cucumber, green beans, and bean sprouts, herbs like mint and basil, and a lemongrass green curry sauce to pour over the whole thing. When you order, the woman will put down the pole and make you a dish right there on the roadside. It’s a common breakfast meal in Cambodia, so look for it at morning markets.
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