The exact answer to when the first food was made is a little hazy due to the age of the evidence. However, signs of fire and cooked food date back to between 300,000 to 1.8 million years ago. Archeologists have found foods such as British bread, Roman Tomb wine, bone soup, chocolates, noodles, bog butter, and beef jerky to be the oldest foods. When it comes to the world’s oldest cuisine, there is no definite answer, but the Khmer cuisine of Cambodia is known to be one of the oldest living cuisines in the world, dating back to the 9th century.
Cambodian cuisine is often overlooked or forgotten next to the popularity of its neighboring countries, Vietnam, and Thailand. Indeed, many traditional Cambodian dishes are shared with these countries, given their common historical influences. However, many Khmer dishes have their own flavor, ingredients, recipes, and traditions, giving Khmer cuisine a distinct identity of its own.
Traditional cuisine in Cambodia was nearly wiped out during the horrors of the Khmer regime in the 70s, but recently, it has definitely been undergoing a revival, with cooking classes now offered in many of the main tourist centers. When traveling through Cambodia, attending a cooking class is definitely a worthwhile experience, with many dishes which are highly recommended and worth keeping an eye out for.
Cambodian food is predominantly influenced by rice and fish. The country is covered with wetlands, and the monsoon rains, which begin in April, inundate the vibrant green rice paddies throughout the country. The Mekong River, which travels through the heart of the country, holds an astonishing number of freshwater fish, and Tonle Sap Lake is believed to have more fish than any other lake in the world.
Therefore, it is not surprising that rice and fish are the staple ingredients in Cambodian cuisine. Rice especially is eaten every day and with most meals, and one key ingredient which signifies food as distinctly Cambodian is prahok, a crushed, salted, and fermented fish paste.
Khmer cuisine has much in common with neighboring Thailand. They both use a combination of spices and flavors to create a delicate balance between saltiness, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness, although Cambodian food tends to use less sugar and coconut cream for flavor. Most notably, Cambodians also use less chili, and as a result, traditional dishes often don’t have the bite which Thai food is well-known for.
Vietnam and Cambodia share some French influences in their cuisine. The baguette is known as nom pang in Khmer, and delicious, crispy baguettes can be found throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. Nom pang can also mean a type of sandwich, similar to banh mi in Vietnam. Delicious nom pang can be found at many street stalls, and is usually filled with sliced or minced meat (with Cambodian flavors, of course) and served with fresh salad and pickled vegetables. What most people know as “Vietnamese coffee” is also popular in Cambodia, traditionally brewed in a Phin filter and sweetened with condensed milk.
Cambodian curries also show traces of cultural influences from India, with spice pastes blended from a mix of cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and turmeric. To give Cambodian flavors to the curry pastes, local ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander, and galangal are used.
International chefs are also exploring the magic of Cambodian ingredients and utilizing them for the world to enjoy.