Cambodia and Laos

Cambodia and Laos

Charmaine Solomon
22 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

Cambodia (Khmer)

Rice is the staff of life, as in all of Asia, and you won’t have to drive far out of Cambodia’s cities to see how much land is dedicated to growing it. While it is shooting, the paddy fields are a patchwork of vibrant green. Later in the season you can drive through the villages and see the harvested rice, golden grains drying in the sun on large woven mats. Many rural families grow enough rice for their own needs and also raise their own chickens.

However, not all farming takes place on dry land, and floating villages on the Mekong and its tributaries are a unique part of Cambodian culture. Every aspect of life is catered to, from church to school to floating ‘farmyards’ of pigs and chickens. Fishermen rhythmically beat their nets with sticks to release the tiny, flailing silver fish caught up in them – presumably for making fish sauce. No trip to Cambodia would be complete without a glimpse of life on the river.

The principal diet of the people is rice and fish. Fish and shellfish are plentiful, from both the Mekong River and the sea. Vegetables grow easily in the tropical heat of this often lush, green land and make up a substantial part of the local diet. Many village families will cultivate a garden plot to grow bananas and other fruit and vegetables for their own needs, but daily visits to the markets are still necessary as refrigeration is still virtually unknown in rural communities.

Buffalo meat, pork, chicken, duck, pigeons and tiny paddy birds (even smaller than sparrows), which come to the rice fields and are captured in nets, are eaten with enjoyment, but in much smaller quantities than in the West. Meat and poultry are never the main dish, but always the accompaniment. Rice is served boiled with fish or a little poultry or buffalo meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes a bowl of noodle soup may take its place at breakfast, but for the two main meals of the day it is rice (cooked without salt) that is the central dish. It is accompanied by fried fish, kari, vegetables and a soup. All the dishes are served at once, and diners make their own choice. Mutton (or lamb) is not eaten at all.

‘Cambodian food is very much like Thai or Lao food with a touch of Chinese influence,’ I was told by John Lee Kha and Miss Lyna, people from Cambodia who I interviewed when I was researching this book. There is no doubt there are flavours common to all three cuisines.

As we talked over lunch, I noticed that John’s cup was filled with what seemed to be water, yet it steamed like hot tea. When I asked him what was generally drunk with meals in Cambodia, he told me that tea or coffee are seldom served and when tea is served, Chinese tea is preferred, but it is usual for a cup of warm water (gesturing towards his cup) to be sipped along with the meal. In very hot weather the evening meal might consist only of plain boiled rice to give the digestion a rest.

Cambodian cooking is full of flavour, but many of the herbs used are not widely available outside Southeast Asia, so I have chosen dishes using the better-known flavourings. As in most other Asian countries, cooking in Cambodia is not an exact science, but everything is cooked ‘to taste’ and the cook is expected to use originality and initiative to improve the flavour of a dish.

In common with the people of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, Cambodians consider fish sauce, tirk trey, next to rice in importance. It would be unthinkable for them to have to do without it, or prahok, their pungent fermented fish paste.

A very popular Cambodian dish is trei aing, fish grilled over charcoal and served with a dish of raw vegetables such as cucumber slices and fresh bean sprouts, salad greens and fresh herbs (mint, dill, coriander). But this is incomplete until the pungent sauce is served. The sauce is based on fish sauce with garlic, fresh chillies, lemon juice, sugar and vinegar, up to which point it is strikingly similar to Vietnam’s nuoc cham. But the Cambodian version also includes roasted ground peanuts, an ingredient it shares with Laotian and Thai sauces. Small pieces of the grilled fish are wrapped in a salad leaf with cucumber, bean sprouts and a sprig or two of fresh herbs and the whole parcel is dipped in the sauce before being eaten with rice.

Although there is not the same emphasis on sweet desserts as in the West, you may eat your fill of luscious tropical bounty, for most fruits you can imagine are available in their season. With tropical fruits on offer, such as rambutan, longan, mangosteen, dragon fruit, milkfruit, sapodilla, pineapple, small mandarins, roseapple, pomegranate, young coconut, tiny bananas, mangoes and the much maligned durian, who needs to cook dessert?


The most distinctive feature of Laotian cuisine is the prominence given to sticky rice. In other Asian countries, sticky (or glutinous) rice, sometimes called ‘sweet rice’, is used exclusively for sweets or little snacks, but Laotians prefer this rice for all kinds of dishes and serve it at mealtimes. For breakfast, glutinous rice is soaked for 8-10 hours, steamed until soft and eaten with mango, coconut or padek, a fish product made at home in which chunks of fish are preserved in brine. The liquid in which the fish is steeped is also used and is known as nam padek. The rice is also sometimes steamed and eaten with black beans or yams.

In Cambodian and Laotian cities, restaurants serving local food have only emerged in recent times. In the past, when people ate out, they would traditionally eat excellent Chinese or French food. Interestingly, the French influence on the food of these countries has not mingled with the local dishes; it has remained separate and become very popular. However, the interest of tourists who want to taste the local cuisine as well as the growing popularity of these countries as tourist destinations has resulted in the emergence of restaurants serving national dishes.

When I wrote this cookbook, the only opportunity for eating local cuisine was to be invited into a Lao home. Lao dishes take a long time to prepare and all the ingredients have to be fresh. Meals are not planned in advance and the menu depends on whatever is available when mealtime comes. They would never consider using frozen food. Lao people enjoy eating fresh meat, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. Not many people have refrigerators in which to store their food, and even if they had they would not choose to store it for long.

Every typical Lao house has a small garden in front or at the back to grow vegetables and the myriad herbs that are used in Laotian food – different types of mint, lemongrass, galangal, Lao eggplant, chillies of various kinds and banana trees are the most common. The banana tree is put to many uses. The fruit is eaten both fresh and ripe, or cooked as a vegetable when it is starchy and unripe. The large, heavy flower is also used as a vegetable. The leaves are invaluable for wrapping food before steaming or grilling over coals and even the inside of the tree trunk is used. Some ingredients — onions, garlic, chilli, tamarind, among others are dried and stored for use when they are out of season.

The daily income is far from sufficient for most families, so some of the men hunt for food and are rewarded with deer or other game. Others go fishing, for there are plenty of fish in the many tributaries of the Mekong River. Chickens, ducks, pigs and turkeys are commonly reared for food.

The meals eaten in Laos are simple. For breakfast, sticky rice is served with black or white coffee. Sometimes tasty morsels of dried meat, fried chicken, beef, fish or pork may be served with the rice and accompanied by chilli paste.

Lunch is rice again, accompanied by soup, a fish, meat or chicken dish, some fresh or cooked vegetables and, of course, the hot sauce. The evening meal is similar, but far from repetitive or dull. An imaginative cook, in Laos as elsewhere, can vary the same main ingredients with a hundred different combinations of flavours. On Sundays, for a special lunch, the traditional dish called lap or koy is prepared. After Sunday breakfast one visits the local market for a leg of fresh venison and some of the deer’s liver as well as one or two vegetables. Back home, the preparation begins. All the best meat is cut into thin slices or minced. The scraps and the bone are used to make strong, tasty stocks and broths.

Meanwhile, the liver is cut into thin slices like the meat; dried red chillies are fried and then ground; glutinous rice is roasted until dark brown, then pounded finely; galangal is scraped and cut into shreds; spring onions are sliced; three kinds of mint are chopped; fish paste is cooked and mixed to a sauce which is served with the lap, and some wild vegetables and bitter greens are picked from the garden or from a neighbouring garden. Like so many Asian cultures, Laotians are generous and very willing to share, and when the food is cooked a dish of it is often sent to friends and neighbours.

Just before the meal is served, fish sauce, lime juice and spring onion are added to the stock to ‘sharpen the taste’. The raw meat and liver are mixed with lime juice, ground chilli, ground rice, galangal and herbs. Steamed sticky rice, which is kept warm in woven bamboo baskets, is served alongside. Lap also means ‘luck’, so this dish is traditionally served at weddings, house-warming ceremonies and other important occasions. Instead of venison one may substitute fresh fish, chicken or half-cooked pork. Rice wine is usually served.

Serving and eating a Cambodian and Laotian meal

Though dining tables are sometimes used, most people prefer to sit on a mat on the floor around a large rattan tray. Each tray is big enough to accommodate six people and stands about 40–50 cm high. All the dishes are placed on the tray and the rice baskets are put between the diners. Forks and spoons might be used, but fingers are used to eat sticky rice. A tray of fresh bananas, papayas or other fruit is placed on one side so that people can help themselves after the meal.


Of prime importance in a Cambodian or Laotian kitchen, as in most of South-East Asia, is a mortar and pestle. So is a sharp chopper and stout chopping board. Cooking is done in a wok, and steaming takes place in bamboo baskets or over earthenware pots of water.

For the recipes that follow, a wok plus the equipment in a Western kitchen will suffice.

Your Cambodian and Laotian shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Camdodian and Laotian cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

—bamboo shoots, tinned

—black pepper, ground

—cellophane (bean starch) noodles

—chilli powder

—chillies, dried red and fresh

—coconut milk and cream

—coriander, ground


—cumin, ground

—dried shrimp

—fennel, ground

—fermented fish paste (prahok)

—fish sauce

—galangal, fresh or brined

—green peppercorns, in brine

—laos (dried galangal) powder

—palm sugar

—peanut oil

—peanuts, raw or roasted (unsalted)

—rice wine or dry sherry

—sesame oil

—sesame seeds

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—soy sauce, light and dark

—turmeric, ground

—water chestnuts, tinned

—wood fungus, dried

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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