Feeling peckish in Phnom Penh? You might be mildly surprised

Subtle flavours from a tradition that goes back a thousand years are on offer in Cambodia's capital

Cambodia's cuisine is nothing to write home about. So said one guide book I consulted before visiting the country. It seemed rather unlikely - Cambodia's neighbours Thailand and Vietnam are famous for their cuisine - and it turned out to be untrue. Although, in fairness, Cambodia is changing so fast that the guide book, compiled only a few years ago, had merely been overtaken by events.

Cambodia's cuisine is nothing to write home about. So said one guide book I consulted before visiting the country. It seemed rather unlikely - Cambodia's neighbours Thailand and Vietnam are famous for their cuisine - and it turned out to be untrue. Although, in fairness, Cambodia is changing so fast that the guide book, compiled only a few years ago, had merely been overtaken by events.

Cambodia has emerged from its appalling recent history with a renewed enthusiasm for the traditions of its more ancient and comfortable past, including some very fine Khmer cuisine. Phnom Penh, located at the confluence of the Mekong with two other mighty rivers of the region, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac, is a case in point. It's hard to believe that less than 30 years ago this charming place became a ghost town when it was forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. The residents who survived those terrible years, when more than two million Cambodians were starved, tortured and worked to death or murdered in the Killing Fields, began repopulating the city only 25 years ago. It has taken most of that time to recover. But, at last food production and supplies are well enough established for the city's cafés and markets to thrive once more.

And thriving they are. The city's social heart stretches along its riverside promenade, and every afternoon, just before sunset, hundreds of hawkers set up stalls there selling an extraordinary choice of snacks and fast-food to the locals strolling by. This snacking is a mere appetiser for the evening feasts of Khmer food that are served up in the riverside cafés and bustling night markets around the city.

A thousand years ago the Khmer Kingdom, which centred on Angkor, ruled an empire that included most of south-east Asia. Hence, many of the dishes made famous by Thai and Vietnamese kitchens have their roots in Khmer dishes from that time. The Khmer recipes being revived today go back to the days before the introduction of the chilli, so are subsequently much milder than most Asian food. The chilli was unknown in Asia until the 16th century when it arrived with the Portuguese following its discovery in the Americas by Columbus. Cooks across Asia were quick to spice their cuisine with this new ingredient and began growing their own supplies. But by then the Khmer Kingdom was in decline. So Khmer cuisine is dominated by the more subtle flavours of the spices and herbs used.

The most essential ingredient in most Khmer dishes is a herb paste known as kroeung, a blend of lemon grass, galangal, rhizome (or lesser galangal), turmeric, garlic and fish sauce. Shallots, kaffir lime zest and modest amounts of chilli are added to certain dishes. Often a powerful side-dish of chillis mixed with fish sauce, garlic and peanuts is provided for those who want to spice things up.

Kroeung is used in all the samlaa or wet dishes, such as soups and stews, accompanied by mounds of steamed white rice. Rice is such an important staple of the Cambodian diet that in Khmer the phrase for eating, nyam bai, literally means "eat rice". Street food is dominated by rice. The soups and stews served with it are kept in rows of pots and customers just lift the lids and choose the ones they fancy. There's always fish and usually some beef, pork or chicken, though with the latest report of avian flu in Cambodia, that is something you might choose to avoid.

For the less adventurous there are plenty of more formal cafés around Phnom Penh and some very fine restaurants with a good selection of traditional dishes.

Salads are popular starters, made with delicious ingredients including banana flower blossom, lotus roots, green mango or green papaya served with finely chopped roasted peanuts and shrimps, doused in lively dressings of fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and sprinkled with lots of fresh coriander leaves.

Amok is a favourite. It's an aromatic dish of chicken or fish (amok trey), steamed with kroeung and coconut cream in either a banana leaf or a coconut shell. There are many other fragrant stews and soups, chargrilled meats and prawns, stir-fries and quite a lot of frogs on Khmer menus.

Vegetarian dishes are rare in Cambodia; often trokooen or wok-fried morning glory with garlic is the only choice. Samlor kakou, a green vegetable curry, is worth looking out for. Cambodians find it hard to believe anyone would choose to not eat meat and fish, but there is a small Indian community which runs several restaurants where this will be no problem. The East India Curry on Street 114 serves a fine vegetarian thali.

There are stylish options, too. The ultra-cool Amanjaya hotel on the riverfront at Wat Ounalom, just along from the spectacular Royal Palace, has a chic terrace restaurant where you can have excellent amok trey and loc lak beef. The most luxurious venue in Phnom Penh is the Hotel Le Royal near Wat Phnom, immaculately restored and reopened by Raffles. And the best way to end the day? Sip a cold Angkor beer under a slow ceiling fan looking out over the Tonle Sap from the balcony of the colonial-era Foreign Correspondents' Club of Cambodia. Who knows, you might feel the urge to write home about all this wonderful cuisine.


How to get there

Chris Caldicott travelled to Cambodia with Scott Dunn (020-8682 5010; www.scottdunn.com) which offers seven-day deals from £1,575, including return flights on British Airways and Bangkok Airways, three nights at Siam Reap, including half-board at Residence d'Angkor and tours of the Angkor temples, one night's bed and breakfast at Le Royal, Phnom Penh, and two nights in Bangkok, with b&b at the Oriental, and the services of guides.

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