Welcome to our list of the ten most popular Cambodian spices.
One of the greatest joys of travelling is the discovery of new spices and seasonings. It’s fascinating to learn how different regions use local ingredients to create a unique type of cuisine.
Visitors to Cambodia often describe the overall flavour profile as being more subtle than Thai or Vietnamese food. This is due to the different use of the same spices between the neighbouring countries.
Cambodian spices, or should I say Southeast Asian spices, are used to infuse fresh, bold layers of flavour into local dishes. However, in Cambodia spice usage is less dominant than in neighbouring Thailand.
Hope you enjoy our list of the most popular spices in Cambodia. Let us know if we forgot some in the comments and we’ll add them to the list!
10 Popular Spices Used in Cambodian Cuisine
Red Chili Peppers – M’tes
Chilies are popular around the world but they actually aren’t native to Cambodia. Small red chili peppers were spread through Asia by Portuguese Traders. (Did you know that a Portuguese monk was possibly the first westerner to see Angkor Wat?)
Chilies are super popular in Thai cuisine, while many Khmer dishes have a sweeter tone. That’s not to say that Khmer food isn’t spicy. You’ll find these little red chili peppers everywhere and they can be bought for very cheap.
One of the most common dipping sauces is made of sliced red chilies, sliced garlic, and fish sauce combined together in a little dish.
Star Anise – Chan kari
As its name suggests, star anise is a small star-shaped fruit that has a strong, sweet flavour closely resembling anis. The little pod, native to Southeast Asia, contains a pea-sized seed in each of its points.
Star anise is a commonly used spice in Cambodia but it’s also used around the world for diverse reasons. It has been used as an ingredient in perfumes, soaps, toothpaste, mouthwashes, and skin creams. It has a special place in the French mulled wine recipe. And is also a common spice in Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cuisines!
Let’s just say this small spice packs a big punch.
Ginger – Khnhey
Ginger and the following two Cambodian spices are closely related: Galangal and Fingerroot. They even look quite similar. Yet, accidentally mixing them up can be disastrous to your taste buds!
Ginger is among the healthiest and most delicious spices on the planet. It’s no surprise Cambodians love using the ingredient in all types of dishes.
The root is loaded with nutrients and compounds that have powerful benefits for your body and brain. Ginger even appears to be highly effective against nausea.
Galangal – Romdeng
Galangal is also known as Thai ginger or Siamese ginger and is a relative of the ginger root and fingerroot.
Although it looks like ginger, galangal’s flavour greatly varies. The root gives a spicy or peppery taste that resembles a mild mustard flavour.
That’s a completely different flavour profile from ginger so please don’t make the mistake of using them interchangeably. Take a close look at the skin. You’ll notice that galangal often has a paler colour marked with striations. Also, the root’s flesh is tougher and you won’t be able to grate it like with ginger.
Fingerroot – Khchiey
Fingerroot is yet another common Cambodian spice that’s closely related to ginger.
You probably won’t mix up this spice with any of the others. It has a milder flavour, yet distinctive aroma compared to ginger and galangal. And fingerroot actually looks like long, brown fingers!
The roots have a yellowish hue covered by a brown skin layer. You won’t want to eat the skin on this one, so to prepare, scrape off the brown skin with a knife and then chop or slice the tuber.
Fingerroot is one of the main spices used in Cambodia to flavour the many types of curry pastes. It even plays a key role in the national Fish Amok dish.
Turmeric – Lamiet
Turmeric is actually a plant and we use the roots in cooking.
It has recently been branded as a superfood thanks to the many scientifically-proven health benefits. Turmeric has been shown to prevent several health conditions such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers.
It’s most commonly found fresh or boiled in water and dried. After drying, turmeric is ground into a deep orange-yellow coloured powder.
Turmeric powder has a warm, bitter, black pepper-like flavour and an earthy, mustard-like aroma. It’s the famous spice that gives curry it’s deep gold colour.
Cardamom – Pka Chan Ted – Kravanh
Cardamom is a native spice in Cambodia. It’s also the world’s third most expensive spice right behind saffron and surprisingly vanilla. Southeast Asians don’t only use cardamom for its flavour but also for its medicinal properties.
The large leafy plant produces pods that are harvested for the seeds contained within. The seeds are dried before being used as a spice for cooking delicious dishes.
There are two main types of cardamom: black cardamom and green cardamom. Green is the most commonly used and has a strong, aromatic fragrance. Black cardamom is harvested later and has a distinct smoky, though not bitter, aroma with a coolness comparable to mints.
There’s actually a mountain range in southwestern Cambodia named after the famous spice.
Tamarind – Ampil khui
Tamarind is a popular spice used in Cambodian cuisine.
Tamarind is a pod-like fruit, technically a legume, that contains large seeds and a sticky, tart pulp. It has many uses and is a commonly used ingredient for traditional medicine.
Tamarind has a distinct sour or tart flavour that is enhanced further after drying. The flesh inside the pods can be eaten fresh but it’s more common to find them dried. The pulp turns even sourer after drying.
Tamarind is not only a popular Cambodian spice but is also used widely throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
A fun way to try the intense flavour is through easy-to-find treats in Cambodian markets.
Palm Sugar – Skor Thnoat
Palm sugar is natural, unrefined sugar made from the sweet sap from any type of palm tree. There are five types of palm sugar that come from different trees:
- The Palmyra
- The Date
- The Nipa
- The Sugar
- The Coconut
Palm sugar is healthier than typical refined white sugar and also has a rich flavour.
Here’s a video showing the cooking process from tree sap to sugar. The video was filmed in Thailand but it’s the same here in Cambodia.
Pepper – M’rech
Believe it or not, pepper is one of Cambodia’s specialties.
Cambodia’s pepper farms are world-renowned and export one of the most valuable products in the kingdom. The most famous pepper farms are found in and around Kampot. They offer a few different colours of pepper: black pepper, green pepper, and white pepper.
If you’re used to store-bought pre-ground pepper, you’ll be in shock once you taste fresh Cambodian pepper. Try stir-fried squid and fresh green pepper during your visit.
Pepper is a key ingredient to several Cambodian dipping sauces. A super common one is simply ground black pepper mixed with fresh lime juice. To that, sometimes additions of garlic and chili help to enhance flavours even more.
Some of the spices may be familiar to you and some may be a bit more exotic. We recommend using the spices you’re familiar with in different ways. For example, the super simple dipping sauce which is just fish sauce plus chili peppers.
Let us know if we forgot your favorite Cambodian spice in the comments and we’ll add it to the list!