Forget about brownie sundaes, forget about éclairs and chocolate cake. The real desserts, the sinfully sweet and decadent treats, can be found in one place: Cambodia. In the country these desserts are called Khmer sweets, and they are a staple to any full Cambodian meal. Generally, Cambodian treats are egg-based dishes that are spiced up with a variety of flavours (vanilla and cinnamon are typical favourites).
Dessert in Cambodia is a little different from dessert in Australia. For starters, instead of being served at the end of the meal or in the evening, Cambodian desserts are most frequently enjoyed mid-morning. Instead of being served in the home as a cap on a delicious meal, the desserts are bought and enjoyed in markets as you are doing your shopping around town. Finally, the ingredients in Cambodian treats are less traditional than the sweet flavours you typically see in Western desserts. Look for ingredients like cassava, mung beans, and lotus seeds paired with sticky sweet syrups like coconut cream, palm syrup, and condensed milk. Beyond these ingredients you can always expect to have at least one fresh fruit added to the mix. Look for favourites like mangoes, rambutan, durian and of course, bananas.
In the local open-air markets, dessert ingredients are usually displayed in large bowls. Patrons point out their desired items which are then scooped into a bowl, served over crushed ice, and covered in sweet toppings. There’s nothing as delicious as your first taste of a true Cambodian sweet. Some example of these sweet snacks include donut balls with sweet lentil filling and iced sugar coatings or waffles made with coconut milk cooked over an open grill. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular (and tastiest!) Cambodian desserts you should try while in the country.
Pumpkin custard is a dessert frequently made for special events and is best prepared the day before and stored in the refrigerator overnight. It isn’t often seen in the markets like other sweets but is a sweet and creamy dessert option.
The Khmer name for this dessert is Num Chak Kachan and Cambodians will generally make this dessert during Buddhist holy days. Different variations have different styles but you will often see different layers of colours in these cakes.
This is one of Cambodia’s most well-known desserts and is commonly eaten and served on holidays and feast days, particularly on Pchum Ben (festival of the dead) and Khmer New Year when it is taken to pagodas and shared with monks and festival participants.
Sweet Mung Bean Pudding, a classic Cambodian dessert, is the perfect treat for when you want to make yourself something a little indulgent or when you need a simple dessert that everyone will enjoy. Topping the pudding with coconut sauce is optional but it seems to be the most popular topping used.
Sticky rice is chewier and has more texture than regular white rice, and because of the sweetness of the rice is considered a dessert dish. The tart and exotic flavour of the mangoes compliment the starchy rice. Don’t worry about trying to eat in layers or sections—after your first taste, you’ll be gulping it down without regard for neatness.
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Image courtesy of Flickr user Houang Stephane.