The culinary secrets of Cambodia and Vietnam

Vietnam is known for its culinary splendour. Delicate flavours, complimentary textures and fresh ingredients combine to create some of the most iconic dishes in South East Asia. In fact, Vietnamese cuisine is perhaps the region’s most alluring.

But aside from Vietnam’s more popular exports - pho, bánh mì, vermicelli salads and summer rolls, our knowledge of local Vietnamese cuisine might be limited. The same goes, in an even broader sense, for the food of neighbouring Cambodia.

Now, Cambodia isn’t generally revered for its food, but as a country that was once rich in spices and quality produce before it was ravaged by civil war, it has the bones of a gastronomic powerhouse. Many of the most popular dishes here are reflective of the borders Cambodia shares with Vietnam and Thailand, and also heavily reference the years of French rule.

If you want to have a real, local experience in Vietnam or Cambodia, walk to the nearest market or street vendor, pull up a plastic stool, grab a cold beer, take a deep breath and feast with the locals.

Vietnam:

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This concoction originated in Hanoi but has since spread south. Cha ca is made up of morsels of flakey white fish marinated in turmeric, galangal, garlic and shallots. It’s then fried and served with lashings of fresh dill, roasted peanuts, fresh mint, lettuce, and a selection of dipping sauces.

Bahn xeo
This dish may be more familiar, but bahn xeo, Vietnam’s answer to France’s galette, is still yet to find much traction beyond Vietnam’s borders. Bahn xeo is a crispy savoury pancake made with rice flour, turmeric and water. It’s stuffed with pork, prawns, green onion and bean sprouts and served wrapped in crunchy lettuce or bahn trang wrappers (the edible rice paper used for summer rolls) with fresh herbs and a sweet and sour fish sauce.

This dish varies slightly depending on the region, but always relies on a combination of fresh and fried elements to create a texturally appealing meal. A favourite among locals.

Ga nuong
A perfect example of the foolproof simplicity of Vietnamese cuisine, this popular creation is simply grilled chicken. Street Vendors across Vietnam create their own variations, but when it comes down to it, ga nuong is essentially marinated chicken that is charred on a hot grill. Hunt down the best in town and you’ll be back every day.

Bahn khot
A specialty of the former fishing village, Vang Tau, bahn khot is a small savoury pancake that does very little for the eye but wonders for the palate.  Made with rice flour, coconut milk, spring onion and prawns, and topped with pork floss and fresh spring onion, these little pancakes are a simple delight. Again served with crisp lettuce and an array of fresh herbs, dipping sauce and green papaya, bahn khot is another example of Vietnamese simplicity.

Bot chein
Another staple on the streets in Vietnam, bot chien is simply fried rice cake served with egg. The cubed gelatinous rice cake becomes crispy when it is fried, whilst the egg enhances its flavour and texture. Served with salty soy and fresh crisp vegetables, bot chien is a cheap favourite among local university students and hungry travellers alike.

Cambodia:

Red tree ants with beef and holy basil
A fragrant dish of garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, chili, finely sliced beef, and of course the slightly sour red ants that the dish is named for. A relatively easy dish for foreign palettes to enjoy, especially considering the inclusion of insects, this is certainly a crowd pleaser.

Nom bahn chok – Khmer noodles
One of Cambodia’ beloved dishes, nom bahn chok is a typical breakfast. It’s rice noodles with a fish-based green curry sauce made from turmeric, lemongrass and kaffir lime. It is topped with fresh mint, banana flower, cucumber, bean sprouts, green beans and a combination of other fresh greens.

Kdam cha
A dish worth travelling to Cambodia’s southern towns of Kampot and Kep for, kdam cha is, for the most part, fried crab. Whole crabs are stir fried with locally grown fresh Kampot peppers (a world-renowned pepper among gourmet folk) and garlic cloves. Cracking into the crab and hunting down the best morsels of meat among the delicious pungent sauce is an experience unto itself. We’re currently celebrating 20 years of local leaders by offering you a chance to win 20 trips in 20 days.

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