How vegetarian-friendly is Cambodia? As a (mostly) vegetarian couple living in Phnom Penh, this is a question we get all the time. Today, we are happy to come to you with the good news: yes, it is possible to be vegetarian or vegan in Cambodia. If you’re anything like us, you will be pleasantly surprised by how accessible and delicious vegetarian food is throughout the city and country as a whole.
If you choose to take the easy route, cities like Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap all have a variety of western restaurants with vast vegetarian menus. In fact, at veg-only restaurants, you can even find vegan versions of traditional Khmer dishes such as amok or lok lak.
Vegetarian street food
Although most street food in Cambodia contains meat (or at the very least, fish sauce), there are still options for vegetarians and vegans alike.
Although you may not get a full course out of any of these options, they will undoubtedly be a delicious snack to hold you over between meals.
A sweet treat that you will find almost everywhere. If you see a cart parked with bananas on the grill, don’t pass it up. A delicious and inexpensive snack – there is definitely no meat in this dish.
Baguette with vegetables (sandwich)
The baguettes in Cambodia are fantastic and the carts are hard to miss. Many locals will pull up to these stands around lunch time to get a full sandwich for under $2.
Vegetarians / vegans – beware – as what looks like a firm tofu is actually pate.
That said, ask for one of these sandwiches without meat and you will get some vegetables on a fresh baguette with chili sauce.
Vegans – make sure to ask for this with no butter.
Corn on the cob
A classic, common, and meat-free snack between meals.
Rice & chive cakes
These are made with rice flour, coconut milk and chives – so yes – they are vegan! This is a typical Cambodian street food meal that almost everybody can enjoy. They are similar to a pancake and fried in oil. You don’t have to worry about them being fried in the same oil as meat, as many of these carts only serve these cakes. Just because you’re veg, doesn’t mean you have to miss out on trying some great Cambodian street food.
Many buns contain meat, but when you see the puffy buns that are green in colour, you can trust that they are meat-free. These buns are soft, sweet, and vegetarian. You can find them at many food cart stands.
* We are unsure if these are vegan *
Sugar cane juice
Okay, so I guess this isn’t actually food – but we figured it was worth mentioning because we absolutely love it. Sugar cane juice is accessible on almost every side road in Phnom Penh, and it is the perfect drink to quench your thirst on those painfully hot days. It is filled with antioxidants and will be sure to boost your immune system, too.
What to avoid
Until you’re familiar with the foods and maybe even know a little bit of Khmer, it might be best to avoid certain foods.
- Steamed buns – these contain pork
- Buns in general – even the fried ones may contain meat (we can vouch for the green buns, though)
- Fried noodles – you will see many stands frying noodles in street carts. Even if you can communicate that you don’t want meat inside the stir fry, these stands often use instant noodle packets. The flavouring packets often times contain beef or chicken stock.
Key words in Khmer
When we first moved to Cambodia, we found it was easier to just learn the word “meat” and then shake our heads / wave our hands frantically to communicate that we didn’t want it. As hilarious and embarrassing as this is, it actually proved to be pretty effective.
To avoid this dance that we did for too long, here are some further suggestions:
Banlay (pronounced bun-lie): This is the Khmer word for vegetable. We would order a dish and add this to the end of our order, stating that we want our dish to be filled with veggies.
Aht Sacht (no meat): This is the direct translation for “no meat”. Since the concept of vegetarianism isn’t as popular in Cambodia, this may not always mean “vegetarian” to the locals. Although this will not exactly cover everything (there may still be beef or chicken broth in a dish), it is one of the stepping stones to a meat-free dish.
Egg (Pong Mowan / Pong th-ea): The former is chicken egg and the latter is duck egg, which is more common in Cambodia.
When in doubt…
There are many vegetarian-only restaurants in Cambodia.
Happy Cow is a great resource and, in our experience, quite up to date with the vegan options in the country.
Okay, after a year of living in Cambodia, we’ve gotten the hang of it. Watch us in our early stages fumbling around Phnom Penh: