Khmer cuisine is noted for the use of prahok, a type of fermented fish paste, in many dishes as a distinctive flavoring. When prahok is not used, it is likely to be kapǐ instead, a kind of fermented shrimp paste. Coconut milk is the main ingredient of many Khmer curries and desserts. In Cambodia, there is regular aromatic rice and glutinous or sticky rice. The latter is used more in dessert dishes with fruits such as durian. Almost every meal is eaten with a bowl of rice.
Cambodian cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups, stir-fried cuisine and as dippings. Curry dishes known as kari shows its ties with Indian cuisine. Influences from Chinese cuisine can be noted in the use of many variations of rice noodles. Beef noodle soup known simply as kuyteav is a popular dish brought to Cambodia by its Chinese settlers. Also, Banh Chiao is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese Bánh xèo.
Typically, Cambodians eat their meals with at least three or four separate dishes. Each individual dish will usually be one of either sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Chili is usually left up to the individual to add themselves. In this way Cambodians ensure that they get a bit of every flavour to satisfy their palates.
Prior to the 16th century, the chili was relatively unknown in Asia until the arrival of the Portuguese. It was a great many years before chili was introduced to Cambodia. Tamarind, now commonly found in the form of a soup base, is a common ingredient in sour dishes such as samlar machu. Star anise is a must when caramelising meats in palm sugar such as pork in the dish known as pak lov. Turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves are essential spices in Khmer cooking, Khmer stews, and nearly all curries.
From India, by way of Java, Cambodians have been taught the art of blending spice paste using many ingredients such as cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. Other native ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves are added to these spices to make a most distinctive and complex spice blend called kroeung which is a very important and aromatic paste commonly used in Cambodian cooking.
Many vegetables used in Khmer cuisine are also used in Chinese cuisine. Unusual vegetables such as winter melon, bitter melon, luffa and yardlong bean can be found in soups and stews. Oriental squash can be stewed, stir fried or sweetened and steamed with coconut milk as a dessert. Vegetables such as mushrooms, cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots, fresh ginger, Chinese broccoli, snow peas and bok choy are commonly used in many different stir fry dishes simply known as chha. Banana blossoms are sliced and added to some noodle dishes like nom banh chok.
Fish is the most common form of meat in Khmer cuisine. Dried salted fish known as trei ngeat are a favourite with plain rice porridge. The popular Khmer dish called amok uses a kind of catfish steamed in a savoury coconut based curry. Pork is quite popular in making sweet Khmer sausages known as twah ko. Beef and chicken are stewed, grilled or stir fried. Seafood include an array of shellfish such as clams, cockles as well as crayfish, shrimp and squid. Lobsters are not commonly eaten because of their price, but middle class and rich Cambodians enjoy eating them at Sihanoukville.
Duck roasted in Chinese char siu style is popular during festivals. Unusual meats include frog, turtle and various arthropods like tarantulas; these would be difficult to find in Khmer cuisine abroad, but are enjoyed as everyday delights in Cambodia.
Many elements of Cambodian noodle dishes were inspired by Chinese and Vietnamese cooking despite maintaining a unique Khmer variation. Prahok is never used with noodle dishes. Rice stick noodles are used in mee katang, which is a Cambodian variation of chǎofàn . Unlike the Chinese styled chǎofàn, the noodles are plated under the stir fry beef and vegetables and is topped off with scrambled eggs. Burmese style noodles (mee kola) is a vegetarian dish made from thin rice stick noodles and steamed cooked with soy sauce and garlic chives. It is served with pickled vegetables jroak, julienned eggs and sweet garlic fish sauce garnished with crushed peanuts. Mi cha is sweet egg noodles stir fried with pork and cabbages.
Fruits in Cambodia are so popular that they have their own royal court. The durian is considered the king, the mangosteen the queen, sapodilla the prince and the princess as the ‘milk fruit’ (phlai teuk doh ko). Other popular fruits include: the jan fruit, kuy fruit, romduol, pineapple, star apple, rose apple, coconut, palmyra fruit, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, mango and rambutans. Although fruits are usually considered desserts, some fruits like riped mangoes, watermelon and pineapples are eaten commonly with heavily salted fish with plain rice. Fruits are also made into beverages called tuek kolok, mostly shakes. Popular fruits for shakes are durian, mangoes, bananas.