Various Cambodian Food Products
A common ingredient, almost a national institution, is a pungent type of fermented fish paste used in many dishes, a distinctive flavoring known as prahok.It's an acquired taste for most Westerners, but is an integral part of Khmer food and is included in many dishes or used as a dipping sauce. The liberal use of prahok, which adds a salty tang to many dishes, is a characteristic which distinguishes Khmer food from that of its neighbours. Prahok can be prepared many ways and eaten as a dish on its own right. Prahok jien, is fried and usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can also be eaten with dips, vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice. Prahok gop or Prahok ang or is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under a fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
When prahok is not used, kapǐ, a kind of fermented shrimp paste is used instead. Khmerfood also uses fish sauce widely in soups and stir-fried dishes, and as a dipping sauce.
Unknown in Asia prior to the 16th century, the chili pepper arrived with the Portuguese. More years still passed before the chili pepper reached Cambodia, and to this day it lacks a certain status in Khmer cooking and is not extensively used, unlike neighbouring Thailand, Laos or Malaysia. Black pepper is the preferred choice when heat is required in a dish. Tamarind is commonly employed as a soup base for dishes such as samlar machu. Star anise is a must when caramelizing meats in palm sugar like 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.
As the country has an extensive network of waterways, freshwater fish plays a large part in the diet of most Cambodians, making its way into many recipes. Daily fresh catches come from the Mekong River, Bassac River and the vast Tonlé Sap. While freshwater fish is the most commonly-used meat in the Cambodian diet, pork and chicken are also popular. Though not as common as in neighboring Vietnam, vegetarian food is still a part of Khmer food and often favored by more observant Buddhists.