Any vegetarian or vegan knows that finding meat- and dairy-free options can take a bit more planning while traveling. Luckily, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are very vegetarian-friendly cities. With a few tips, you can easily enjoy the wide array of meatless and dairy-free delights that Cambodia has has to offer. We also have cards in Khmer you can print out and take to restaurants.
What to know: ingredients
The main enemies of any vegan and vegetarian in Cambodia will be fish sauce, oyster sauce, chicken powder, and prawns. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, and chicken powder are frequently used for flavoring, even in many vegetable dishes. If the restaurant menu has descriptions in English, it will often (but not always!) indicate when oyster sauce or prawns are used. However, fish sauce and chicken powder can be trickier to figure out, so it’s always good to confirm with the server (see below for helpful Khmer phrases). Many restaurants aimed at tourists have English-speaking staff, and I have had a lot of success with simply asking for vegetable dishes without oyster sauce or fish sauce.
Prawns also sneak into foods you may not expect. They appear in many packaged snacks, such as rice crackers. So when you’re stocking up on road trip snacks, be sure to check the list of allergens (if there is one) as well as the ingredients list. Occasionally a product won’t list prawns as an ingredient, but will list it in the allergens section. It could be that in these instances, the crackers are simply made in a facility where there may be trace amounts of prawn. Similarly, many restaurants will prepare vegetarian or vegan dishes in the same pans and with the same utensils as meat dishes.
Many vegans I’ve met in Cambodia take an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective on this. But if you want vegan food that is prepared completely separate from meat dishes, your best bet might be specialist vegetarian restaurants. There are some strictly vegetarian restaurants in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that don’t have any meat on the menu (though nearly all of them have some dishes with dairy or egg on the menu).
One last word of caution on avoiding dairy: be sure to read the ingredients on non-dairy milks before purchasing. The Lactasoy milk brand, which is popular in Cambodia, has multiple varieties of soy milk, most of which contain milk or milk powder. The vegetarian soy milk will be labeled “vegetarian” and usually comes in a pink carton. It is possible to find rice milk, coconut milk, and other non-dairy milk but you’ll have to do a bit more searching. Grocery stores that cater to Westerners are your best bet. Le Marché near Russian Market and La Vie Claire on Street 13 both have a large selection of non-dairy milks, as does Angkor Market in Siem Reap. There are also ice cream shops selling ice cream made with coconut cream, but some of these still contain dairy, so best to revert to the vegan rule of thumb: it never hurts to double check.
Some good vegan standbys:
Vegetable fried rice: You can order this practically anywhere, even when it’s not on the menu. If you are vegan, just ask for no egg.
Vegetable stir-fry or vegetable noodles: Two more vegetable dishes that can frequently be found at Khmer or Western restaurants. Just specify no fish or oyster sauce.
Vegetable amok: When I first arrived, I thought I wouldn’t be able to try one of the signature Cambodian dishes, amok. It’s a curry-like dish with coconut milk that is traditionally made with fish. However, some restaurants make versions of amok with vegetables and mushroom or tofu and it’s delicious! The Corn in Phnom Penh and Chamkar in Siem Reap both serve up a great vegan amok.
Chive cakes: If you’re thinking you can’t be adventurous and sample Cambodian street food, think again! You’ll often see chive cakes for sale on the side of the street. They usually consist of rice flour, coconut milk, and chives, sometimes with kale or other greens mixed in too. The ingredients are combined into a batter and fried in hot oil. If you’re hesitant to jump straight into street food, Mr. Mab, a new restaurant near Russian Market, serves up different traditional street foods in a restaurant setting, including chive cakes.
Fresh fruit, baguettes, homemade jams: If you’re staying at a guest house or hotel, but don’t see any vegan breakfast options on the menu (eggs appear frequently in breakfast dishes in Cambodia), you’ll usually be able to get bread, fruit, and jam. Many guest house restaurants even make their own tropical fruit jam. Between that, baguettes, and fresh fruit, you can end up with a simple but delicious breakfast to start your day!
Useful Khmer words and phrases:
These Khmer phrases will help you communicate with staff at marts or restaurants about vegetarian and vegan food.
I don’t eat… = “Khnyom aut nyam…”
No meat = “Aht chak”
Egg (chicken/duck) = “Pong moan/thear”
Milk = “tduk dah ko”
Oyster sauce = “preng chong”
Fish sauce = “tduk try”
Chicken powder = “sop knah”
Vegetable = “bong lie”
Fried rice = “bai chaa”
Thank you very much = “ahkun chran”
Vegan and vegetarian information cards in Khmer:
We’ve put together a guide in Khmer for vegetarians and vegans to take to restaurants. When you print them, they will be small enough to fit in your wallet — just fold them in half and they are business card size. You can save them and have them printed and laminated at any print shop in Cambodia for $1 or $2, and can show them to the server or chef at a restaurant just to make sure they understand your request.
Move to Cambodia city guides to vegetarian dining:
- The best vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Phnom Penh
- Vegetarian and vegan dining in Battambang
- Where to eat vegan and vegetarian on Koh Rong
Additional vegan and vegetarian resources in Cambodia:
HappyCow has a great list of vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants in Cambodia.
Vegan Food Quest is a site by a couple of Siem Reap expats who have a blog about the vegan lifestyle. They also have a guide to eating vegan street food, eating vegan in Siem Reap and one for Battambang.