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  • Writer's pictureAround the World in Vegan Eats

WE FOUND VEGAN LOK LAK IN PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA!

Updated: Apr 3, 2023


Welcome to Phnom Penh, the capital of the beautiful Kingdom of Cambodia. We spent just under a week in this riverfront city, taking in the culture and learning a lot about the history of the country and its people. Cambodia is a country that has seen genocide all too recently, and many of the museums and memorial sites here are extremely harrowing - we will discuss this more in our Top Places to Eat Vegan in Phnom Penh blog. Despite the horrifying times the people and their recent ancestors have endured, Cambodian culture remains vibrant here in Phnom Penh, particularly in the local food culture. One of the most famous Cambodian dishes is Lok Lak - we were so desperate to try it that we spent a lot of time and significant research tracking down a plant-based version. Read on to discover where we found it, how it tasted and how much it cost, then watch the video at the bottom of the page to see the dish (and our reaction) for yourself!


But what actually is Lok Lak?

Lok Lak, one of Cambodia's favourite dishes, is traditionally made with beef. The meat is served in a soy and pepper sauce that sometimes contains ketchup (I know, I was surprised too - whether or not to include ketchup is a contentious debate here!) This is nearly served with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber; often either rice or french fries accompany the dish too. Many traditional versions will include Kampot pepper, the Cambodian peppercorns that are world-famous for their distinctive flavour and potency that only grow in the beautiful city of Kampot. With beef as a main ingredient, this was once a dish for the wealthy, or for a very special occasion; it is now served more widely across Cambodia - and we hoped that this popularity would mean a readily available plant-based version too.


Where did we try vegan Lok Lak in Phnom Penh?

The shop front of the restaurant, with a motorbike parked outside
Surn Yi Vegetarian Restaurant

It actually took us a long time to find vegan Lok Lak in Phnom Penh, and at times we thought that it might be an impossible task. Though there are options for a plant-based diet in the city, these are few and far between, and often comprise of western food rather than local cuisine. We only actually found vegan lok lak when scouring the menu of Surn Yi Vegetarian (ហាងម្ហូបបួស ស៊ុនអ៉ីស៊ីសុវត្ថិ), a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in the heart of the city.


We headed to the restaurant for their legendary burgers (more on those here) while we were in the process of searching for a plant-based version of the Cambodian beef dish. Surn Yi's menu is huge, and is largely written in Khmer with a few English translations. And what is great is that their menu includes photos of each dish too! Dishes are numbered, and you order via drywipe pens and order forms on your table; all the food here is vegetarian, and everything that can be made vegan is clearly marked too.

After we had ordered our burgers, we had a good look through the menu for the elusive dish and lo and behold, what did we find... Inconspicuously hidden within the menu, under the English name 'Stewed bean curd with rice and soup' was a dish that looked suspiciously like what we had been searching for! With its braised tofu, with tomato sauce, served alongside rice, tomatoes and cucumber, we were pretty sure we needed to come back to try dish number 84!


So come on - tell us all about the Lok Lak! Was it everything you hoped it would be?

We had really enjoyed our previous trip to Surn Yi Vegetarian, so were very pleased to come back and see how their local dishes measured up to their excellent plant-based burgers. We were excited to try this dish, which was different to anything we had tried so far, and really hopeful the dish would closely resemble the one on the menu when it arrived, proving our hunches right and worthwhile.


So once we ordered two portions of dish #84 (vegan) we waited in anticipation - but Surn Yi's service is so efficient that we didn't have to wait too long before two plates full of steaming lok lak were in front of us. It looked exactly as we had hoped: a dome of white rice and neatly presented tomatoes and cucumber, alongside tofu in sauce on a traditional bed of lettuce leaves. The portion looked perfect for lunch, when we were eating, not too much but certainly enough to fill you up; I love that this dish has clear portions of protein, carbs and vegetables too.


So how did it taste? The rice was perfectly cooked, and the salad was fresh, crisp and flavoursome. And then there was the main element of the dish: the famous 'beef' in sauce that dominates this dish as its flavour centre. Firstly, I was really impressed with the way that the tofu imitated beef strips; though the taste wasn't heavily beefy, it did have that savoury flavour, and the texture was suitably tough to imitate quality beef well; it didn't fall apart in the same way that softer tofu can, and it wasn't as light as fried tofu. This really hit the mark; Surn Yi have replicated braised beef really well with their tofu. The sauce itself was heavily ketchup based, in a way that overpowered some of the other flavours. Overall this was a warming and certainly flavoursome dish: we really enjoyed eating this plant-based taste of Cambodian cuisine, and loved trying it at Surn Yi Vegetarian.


How much did the vegan Lok Lak cost - and was it worth it?

Two vegan summer rolls with a slice of vegan sausage visible, with a dish of peanut dipping sauce in the background
Vegan Lok Lak!

In Cambodia, prices are generally written in US Dollars (though you can often also pay in Cambodian Riel, and your change will often be given in these notes). We paid $2.50 per portion of this plant-based lok lak (approx. £2.07 or €2.35) which seemed reasonable for a hearty vegan version of this traditional dish.


If, like me, you're a bit ketchup fan you'll love this lok lak; if you're not such a big fan, it may be a little heavily ketchup-based for you. Regardless, we'd really recommend visiting Surn Yi Vegetarian - one of our favourite places in Phnom Penh and one that is very popular with the locals too. Every time we visited it had a great atmosphere, and we loved how much there was for us to choose from, always for an excellent price.


Surn Yi Vegetarian (ហាងម្ហូបបួស ស៊ុនអ៉ីស៊ីសុវត្ថិ) is located at No.13c Samdach Preah Theamak Lethet Ouk, Phnom Penh, 柬埔寨, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The restaurant is open every day from 7am to 8pm.


Have you tried vegan Lok Lak in Cambodia? Or elsewhere in the world! Where did you go and what did you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.



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Where should I stay?

Phnom Penh is home to a completely vegan homestay: Sacred Lotus. This new and highly rated accommodation is situated close to the Russian market, and even provide community events and donate money to underprivileged local children. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and there's a vegan cafe on site too!


For a comfortable and modern hotel experience in an excellent location, Orussey One Hotel & Apartments are new and highly reviewed. They have a rooftop pool, a sauna and steam room, as well as well equipped and modern rooms.


Tours & Experiences

If this isn't for you, or you'd prefer to see something specific in the city, why not check out the top rated Viator trips below.


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