Food and Water in Cambodia
What you need to know about food and drinking water in Cambodia. Please go to the Table of Contents of this page.
The Taste and Smell of Cambodian Food
Khmer (Cambodian) food, with some little variation, is also almost like what you can find in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia and in the Philippines.
Rice is the staple part of every meal. Restaurants and hotels usually serve the fragrant (Jasmine) rice variety. Herbs constitute the usual part of a meal.
What may primarily distinguish Khmer cuisine is the use of a condiment the Cambodians call "prahok". This is a fish paste (sometimes shrimp paste) that is made by crushing and mashing a large number of small fish or tiny shrimps, raw, and making them ferment in salt for at least one month.
A tiny scoop of prahok is mixed with food to give it a particular degree of saltiness and a spicy scent. The prahok itself may be cooked and eaten with rice and vegetables.
It is usually the scent of prahok that immediately identifies a dish as Khmer. A sense of smell, that does not belong to a Cambodian, meeting the scent of prahok for the first time may find it to be initially abhorrent, but many foreign nationals who got to stay in Cambodia for a significant period of time confess that they have actually learned to like it and relish foods prepared with this unique type of condiment.
An example of a prahok meal is shown below.
The Cambodians eat a lot of herbs, raw, along with their meal. Very healthy in terms of nutritional benefits.
This type of diet can probably well explain why you can very rarely see obese Cambodians, particularly their young women.
Many tourists and expatriates in Cambodia quickly learn to like Khmer foods. There are those, of course, who would always prefer non-Cambodian cuisine.
For those who need time for their taste, smell and digestive systems to adapt to Khmer foods, hotels and restaurants provide menus of European, American, Chinese and Indian foods. There are also at least half a dozen Filipino restaurants in Phnom Penh.
Food Preparation, Hygiene and Health Hazards in Cambodia
The sourcing, handling and preparation of raw vegetables may not be as strictly regulated by food and health authorities as done in more developed countries.
Reputable restaurants, especially those that cater to tourists, are presumed to be careful about the cleanliness of the food they serve and have the facilities and administrative resources to ensure that their patrons will not ingest some health threatening organisms or substances from the food they serve.
Food servers on street sides, however, may or may not have the facilities to ensure hygienic food handling and preparations.
Most likely, our personal immune system can almost always handle, neutralize and kill most pathogens that may come with what we are eating, anywhere, in any part of the world, even in our own kitchen. However, where our mind and our body's immunologic response-systems are still unfamiliar with what may challenge them (such as when we are in a foreign land with unfamiliar ways of food sourcing and preparation), it is wise to be less daring with foods until we are more or less psychologically and physiologically adapted to ways and things in the place we are visiting.
Even in restaurants in Cambodia, there is wisdom in being prudent in choosing what are being offered. For example, it is hard to determine if raw vegies have been thoroughly washed, so, careful exercise of discretion is strongly recommended in eating raw herbs.
About Water for Drinking in Cambodia
The goverment water supply, in the cities of Cambodia, such as in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap, seems to be very good. Clean, crystal clear soft water, without any smell or bad taste, comes out the tap.
In many provinces of Cambodia, however, arsenic has been documented to be present in waters drawn from deep wells. (Arsenic is a chemical element present in soil. It can cause arsenic poisoning. Long-term exposure or ingestion can cause cancer and skin abnormalities.)
Outside the cities and major towns, particularly in more isolated areas in the provinces, there are houses without connections to established waterworks system and where water for all purpose, including for drinking, are stored only in huge earthen jars without cover and invariably entered by insects and even bird droppings. It is best to avoid the use of water sourced from such storage or sourced from wells dug in areas where arsenic could be present.
Map below (by Research and Development International Cambodia) shows areas in Cambodia where high and low risks of arsenic health hazard were detected. Areas colored red are considered in "high risk" and areas colored yellow are considered to be in "low risk" of arsenic contamination. Areas colored green are considered to have "very low" risk of arsenic presence.
Siem Reap is on low risk area (colored yellow) and parts of Phnom Penh are in areas colored red, meaning high risk.
Dozens of brands of bottled water are sold everywhere all over Cambodia. For drinking purposes this is probably the ideal option to avoid drinking water from unverifiable source.
Expatriates, staying for longer periods in Cambodia, usually buy water processors that are equipped with ceramic filters and bring bottled water with them when going to areas in the provinces without established government water processing plants and waterworks system.
About the Ice Placed in Your Drink in Cambodia
Small roughly chopped ice, placed in drinking glass, most likely came from a big block of ice that was broken down into small pieces. The water used to make this ice has uncertain source.
These large blocks of ice are also carried at the back of an ice delivery truck that has not been observed to be clean enough for a block of ice to be simply sitted and pushed around on its floorboards. During delivery, they are dropped down the road in front of the eating place that ordered them and are dragged and manhandled, across muddy gutters and dusty sidewalks, into ice boxes. To say that it is risky to use this ice to chill your drink would be quite a big understatement.
There are small ice tubes or finely crushed ice, in more repurable eating places, that are made inside freezers using purified water or at least clean water from the government water supply. Hotels and restaurants, usually those catering to tourists, use this type of ice for cooling drinks. If not really totally safe, this is the less risky type of ice that you may use in your drink.
The safer type of ice may be identified by their appearance. Some are tubular in shape with hole inside like a pipe. Others are finely and evenly crushed, and others are small cubes of uniform sizes.
What Can You Eat in Cambodia
If you are only passing through Cambodia for a few days, it is understandable if your tastebuds and your digestive system can be comfortable only with food they are familiar with, like the food they were fed in your country of origin. Meeting this requirement is easy in the two major cities of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In these cities hotels serve international cuisine. Restaurants abound, that offer American, European, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Asian foods.
There are restaurants for vegetarians and restaurants that serve Halaal foods for people of Muslim faith. There are restaurants that specializes only in authentic American hamburger. The Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is present in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap. Varied types of Italian pizzas and spaghetties are served in restaurants specializing on pasta food preparations.
Wines, different types of beer, sofdrinks (Coke, Pepsi, etc.), canned fruit juice, milk, coffee, tea, bread (loaf, french bread, etc.), rice, pastries, fresh fruits, meat, fish, are available in grocery stores, supermarkets and almost everywhere.