There’s a crab native to Cambodia that has bright blue legs, giving this particular crustacean the rather obvious common name of blue crab. So abundant are these crabs in this part of the world that a large statue of a blue crab can be found on the seafront in the town of Kep on the south coast. There, you’ll also find a blue crab market, where you can buy freshly caught crab and have it cooked over a fire before your very eyes!
The durian fruit, characterized by its large spiky shell, is recognized by the Khmer people as the “King of Fruits,” with the mangosteen – the “Queen” of fruits – coming a close second. The climate and soil found in the Southern region of Kampot combine to create ideal growing conditions for the durian fruit, and the town center celebrates its association with “the King” with a large roundabout, upon which sits an enormous statue of the fruit!
Prahok (fish paste)
If there’s one ingredient found in almost every traditional savory Khmer dish, it’s prahok – a fermented fish paste with a distinctive smell and taste. It’s so distinctive, in fact, that chefs tend not to use as much in dishes cooked for tourists as they would at home. Prahok is traditionally made during the wet season, when fish are in abundance, in preparation for the dry season, when protein is much harder to come by.
Just as fruit and vegetables are routinely used in Khmer dishes, so are edible flowers. As well as using them to bring color and extra nutrition to a dish, flowers make up one part of a “dipping tray” (alongside a selection of vegetables), which is served with a mixture of prahok and herbs, known as Tuek Kroeung Battambang.
Long-held by the Khmer people as a cure for an upset stomach when mixed with water and consumed as a drink, preserved lemons also give certain Cambodian dishes, such as Ngam Nguv (chicken soup) their unique taste. The “lemons” (known as limes in many other countries) are preserved by first being sun-dried and then soaked in salted water.
A legacy of the country’s former French protectorate status, the baguette has become a staple part of the Cambodian diet, with Khmer people eating this typically French bread with their morning coffee, using it for making sandwiches and as an accompaniment to various main meals.
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter
Cambodian cooking caters for each part of the tongue, with meals tending to made up of a harmonious mix of several dishes that can each be categorized as being either sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. Unlike the food in other Asian countries, chili is usually served as a side dish in Cambodia, so that the diner can choose whether or not their food also includes a “spicy” element.
It’s traditional for people attending weddings in Cambodia to bring a selection of fruits to be displayed at the event. Two native fruits – the “lemut” and the “milk fruit” (the latter said to be available in Cambodia and Vietnam only) – are considered to be particularly auspicious offerings due to the thick, sticky sap produced by the trees on which they grow.
Considered standard fare in Cambodia, it’s possible to find fried spiders being sold as snacks by street vendors – particularly in the town of Skuon in the Kampong Cham province, where tourists are simultaneously intrigued and frightened by the offering, for these are not just any old spiders, but a type of tarantula that is equal in size to the palm of a human hand!