While the cuisines of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam are renowned across the world, Cambodia’s national dishes remain relatively unknown. However, that could be about to change. Editor Marissa Carruthers looks at how Cambodia is tapping into the food tourism trend.

Food is the fuel for life, and a potential big player in the future for tourism across Cambodia, according to industry experts who believe it holds untapped potential across the country and beyond.

While food and tourism have always been linked, it is only in recent years that a country’s cuisine has become recognised as an important competitive attraction.

Just look at Europe and North America, where food tourism has become big business and a major influence in determining holiday destinations. Think Italy and its pizza and pasta, Spain and its paella and tapas, and France with its world-famous cheeses and wines.

According to figures from the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), which launched a region-wide food tourism drive last year, in the USA food forms the largest component of travel spend, raking in more than $200 billion annually.

In Southeast Asia, both Vietnam and Thailand have long had a strong reputation for their cheap and tasty street food, with Vietnamese pho and Thai pad Thai and tom yum known internationally.

And now Cambodia is hoping to follow suit. Plans were recently announced to raise the reputation of Phnom Penh kuyteav – the popular breakfast noodle soup made from pork broth – so it becomes synonymous with the Kingdom across the globe.

Discussions are currently underway between the government and the private sector to come up with ways to promote the popular noodle soup dish. This includes coming up with a quality set of standards to which sellers on almost every street corner must conform.

Currently, street food carts and restaurants package a variety of noodle soups as Phnom Penh kuyteav.

This global appetite for food tourism has also led to a rise in street food tours and food-related trips across Cambodia, which take guests down hidden back alleys and into off-the-beaten-track villages to unearth some of the finest authentic flavours.

“Food has strong connections with culture and heritage and serves as an additional way to connect travellers with a country and its people. It is a diverse and dynamic channel for sharing stories, forming relationships and building communities,” says Jens Thraenhart, MTCO executive director.

“By combining local food and drink with travel, food tourism offers locals and tourists an authentic taste of place while contributing to a sustainable world economy.”

From local street food and rising celebrity chefs, to bustling markets and rich green paddies, Cambodia has a wealth of potential for global foodies.

“We hear from more and more visitors who are looking for a deeper understanding of Cambodia while they are here, and there’s no better way to do that than through the cuisine,” says Lina Goldberg, co-founder of Siem Reap Food Tours. “Food tours are a way to see the town and explore the cuisine without all of the effort of a cooking class.”

Having hunted down some of Siem Reap’s best spots to feast on local food – with hygiene playing a big role in choosing options – Siem Reap Food Tours offers a morning and evening of delving into the country’s dining options.

Early birds can catch Cambodian breakfast with the morning jaunt that takes in a visit to the food market, street food stalls and into the countryside. The evening tour takes in the street stalls that come out at dusk, sampling Cambodian barbecue and dishes such as kroeung, or frogs stuffed with a local curry paste.

While food takes centre stage, a main part of Siem Reap Food Tours’ philosophy is to use Cambodia’s culinary world as a way of giving visitors an insight into local life. The tour takes in trips to meet food producers, market sellers, noodle makers, street food vendors and small family-run restaurants in Siem Reap.

“Although it has similarities to that of neighbouring countries, Cambodian food is unique,” says Goldberg. “The cuisine is defined by terroir, the locality of its ingredients, features freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap, root spices, and foraged herbs, flowers, and wild fruit, and Siem Reap is known for its abundance of fresh ingredients and delicious dishes.”

Despite the rising demand and facilities catering towards food tourism, challenges lie ahead for the market. If food tourism is to reach its full potential, drastic changes need to be made, experts claim.

The lack of established standards and guidelines in terms of food safety and hygiene are a major concern, with food poisoning and stomach upsets sitting top on the list of fears for foreigners. Thraenhart says it is essential the government works with the tourism industry to establish criteria for food safety and quality, as well as education and training.

“With food so deeply connected to its origin, this focus allows the region to market itself as truly unique, appealing to travellers who look to feel part of the destination through its flavours,” says Thraenhart.