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Cambodian: From rustic to refined

Along with its neighbors Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia occupies the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia. The region’s cuisine has been impacted by France, China and India, but Cambodian cooking shows the strongest influences from its native Khmer (hill) people, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. In fact, Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as Khmer.

Along with its neighbors Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia occupies the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia. The region’s cuisine has been impacted by France, China and India, but Cambodian cooking shows the strongest influences from its native Khmer (hill) people, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. In fact, Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as Khmer.

“Cambodian is a little more rustic than Vietnamese, a little less spicy than Laotian and borrows more from India than China,” says Rautha Chau, chef-owner of Kampuchea restaurant in New York City. Spicy, pickled, salty and sweet flavors often mingle in one dish, he adds. “There are always a ton of condiments and fresh herbs as well.”

Rice is a staple and is usually eaten three times a day. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, a specialty is Phoa Khsat or royal rice—a blend of chicken, pork, crayfish and rice, garnished with strips of cooked egg, lemon juice and fried green peppers. The Khmers also popularized a dessert made from glutinous black rice cooked with coconut milk. Seafood is the major protein; catfish, trout, prawns, crayfish and squid are grilled, stir-fried and caramelized. Fish and shellfish are also dried, salted or fermented into a paste (prahok) to add that distinctive Cambodian accent.

Jeff Fournier, chef-owner of 51 Lincoln in Newton, Massachusetts, traveled to Cambodia and incorporated some of the country’s flavors and ingredients into his menu. Items include several noodle soups, Striped Bass Cambodian Amok Style and fried bananas in tempura batter. Phnom Penh’s vibrant market and street food scene inspired his creativity. “The soups were my favorite—they’re eaten for breakfast and each stall has a specialty. There was a memorable broth with sliced duck, pork meatballs and glass noodles that you top with condiments like chopped hot chilies, fresh herbs and bean sprouts,” he recalls. Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, Fournier continues. The fish is steamed in banana leaves with sugar, coconut milk and curry; ginger, lemon grass and chilies are added as aromatics.

Fournier tries for the same effect using local produce and seafood, making his own noodles and sourcing from Boston’s Chinatown for items such as shrimp paste and fermented soy vinegar.

At Kampuchea, Ratha Chau takes classic Cambodian cuisine and “moves it forward. I respect my culinary background,” says the Cambodia-born chef who moved here at age 9, “but I can make the food better with higher quality and more plentiful ingredients.” He sources from top meat and seafood purveyors, shops the Greenmarkets for seasonal produce and buys Asian condiments from importers who favor minimal or no msg.

Kampuchea’s evolving menu includes gently-priced Num Pang (sandwiches; $10-$12), similar to Vietnamese Banh Mi; they are served on toasted baguette with pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and chili mayo. The most popular are House-Cured Bacon and Sweet Pulled Oxtail with tamarind and shrimp sauce. Chau puts a French touch on mussels “because I think French techniques are brilliant,” he says. PEI mussels are served in a broth enriched with wine, butter, lime juice, Thai chilies, herbs and “a paste I make myself with shrimp paste and chilies. The mussels have all the essential elements I crave: hot, spicy, sour, creamy and fresh,” Chau contends.

Menu sampler

The Elephant Walk, Boston, MA

Amok Royal; $17.95
A spicy, custard-like dish of fresh crab, bay scallops, grouper and shrimp with coconut milk steamed in banana leaves.

Loc Lac; $17.50
Sauteed beef tenderloin caramelized in black pepper, garlic and mushroom soy; served over shredded lettuce with lime-pepper dipping sauce

Battambang Cambodian Restaurant, Oakland, CA

Num Banchev; $7.25
Cambodian’s rice flour crepe, stuffed with ground chicken, diced prawns, onion, bean sprouts and green onion; served with cucumber, fresh mint, vinegar sauce and ground peanuts

Banleh Korko; $8.25
Zucchini, carrot, green papaya, eggplant, pumpkin, green beans and spinach simmered in a roasted rice gravy

Num Pang, New York City

House-Cured Bacon Num Pang; $7.50
On baguette with cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, chili mayo

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