Let’s Talk About Khmer Food!

Krystal M. Chuon
4 min readNov 25, 2020
A plate of Lok Lak at a Phnom Penh restaurant. Photo taken by me!

Think of Cambodian food as the old-school punk rocker that has been doing things their own way since before it was even called punk — it’s brash, bold, the antithesis of Top 40 pop.

Modern Adventure

Growing up in a Khmer household meant waking up to aromatic cha or being yelled at to come help cook with the rest of my sisters. Although not a cook myself, I know what it takes to prep and make Khmer cuisine from all those hours helping in the kitchen. It takes strength and patience. Making Khmer food can be quick or can take hours, indicating its range in complexity. I view Khmer cuisine as the hidden cuisine of mainland Southeast Asia and would go so far as calling it the mama of mainland SE Asian cuisine (in reference to Cambodia’s rich culinary history and long-established cuisine scene before the later arrivals of its neighbors). Unfortunately, it’s come to be viewed more as the cousin in the culinary world.

In my many hours of casual research and perusing the web for anything related to Khmer cuisine, I started to notice a pattern — a pattern consisting of Khmer food being described and introduced as having been influenced by its neighbors (namely Thailand and Vietnam), as well as India, China, and France. While there is truth to this, it is more complex than that as not every Khmer dish stems from these influences (and Cambodia’s neighbors were influenced by Khmer cuisine as well). Such statements without context erases Cambodia’s early culinary history and indigenous cuisine and flavors that developed independently from outside influences.

I view it as lazy writing and a huge failure to appropriately introduce Khmer food to the masses. Khmer food isn’t “like Thai food, but less spicy” or “like Vietnamese food, but sweeter.” For those who write or have written about Khmer food and uses that description pattern, I say do better. Do better by researching before you write that intro and focus on centering Khmer food instead of decentering it. This continued pattern has unfortunately reduced Khmer cuisine to being some sort of strange hybrid cuisine (which it isn’t) that no one seems to quite understand. There is a constant lack of nuance when writing and speaking about Khmer food, thus hindering instead of helping Khmer food properly make it in the mainstream.

Sadly, this pattern even shows up in the Khmer diaspora. I can’t count how many times I have read or heard my own people describe Khmer food as being like its neighbors, even erasing kuy teav from their vocabulary by substituting with pho instead despite both being two completely different noodle soup dishes. I understand why this happens; one reason is there’s a lack of proper vocabulary to describe the nuances of Khmer cuisine and with the world readily knowing what Thai or Vietnamese food tastes like, it’s an easier way to provide a close enough description without having to get too complicated and cause confusion. But by doing so, it only perpetuates the pattern further and continues the struggle Khmer cuisine has to being viewed as the distinct, complex cuisine that it truly is.

With the rise of social media and more Khmers opening up restaurants/selling Khmer food, I hope we can start to really, really, really appreciate Khmer food. I feel like we Khmer folks and non-Khmer folks alike are doing a huge disservice to all of the Khmer cooks and ancestors by perpetuating the pattern and not doing enough to truly understand what Khmer cuisine really is (and what it isn’t). It’s due time Khmer food receives the spotlight it deserves in the culinary world and to be able to stand on its own.

As for what I personally would like to see more of now and beyond: Khmer cooks branching into Khmer BBQ or buffets even (they WORK in Cambodia! I can tell you that!) as well as adding more to their menus — where are all the pickled veggies? The dips? Desserts??? Think beyond kroeung beef sticks and chicken wings with a Khmer flair. I want to see us do more! There are so many ways Khmer food can be introduced to the world and it doesn’t always have to stick to traditional standards or follow the way you/a relative cooked growing up. The food scene in Cambodia is slowly thriving and I’d love to see the same in the diaspora!

Cookbooks I Own and Recommend:

Authentic Cambodian Recipes: From Mother to Daughter by Sorey Long and Kanika Linden

Culinary Traditions of Cambodia by Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE)

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