A decade or so ago, when Cambodian chef Somontha Oeng first cooked a royal dinner for her country’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, she was surprised that the former monarch ordered a three-course feast of classic French cuisine. Sihanouk was on one of his visits to the city of Siem Reap, and Oeng, then a sous-chef at the luxurious Amansara resort, had been summoned to the Royal Residence.
Oeng had anticipated serving the King Father ceremonial dishes from the royal court menu. But instead, the royals had a hankering for corn soup and a prime cut of imported steak, cooked medium-rare.
“That was the moment I realised I needed to help make Cambodia’s wonderful flavours visible, to help bring them back,” she explains from the kitchen of her stylish restaurant, Khmer Touch Cuisine. If the country’s royals would rather eat Western food, she thought, how could the rest of the world experience Cambodia’s unique and refined flavours?
Long in the shadow of its fêted Thai and Vietnamese counterparts, Cambodian cuisine is one of the world’s most subtle. Stir-fries, soups and salads come with piquant pastes, complex herbs and edible wildflowers. It’s a song of textures and balance: sweet and bitter, salty and sour, raw and cooked.
Until recently, tourists had little chance to explore the country’s true recipes – these flavours were only found in local markets and suburban restaurants. However, things are now changing. Oeng is just one young Cambodian on a mission to prove that “new-Khmer” cuisine can compete with Thailand and Singapore’s bold spins on their own traditional flavours. Over the last three-and-a-half years she has built up a loyal following at her sleek, modern restaurant opposite the Angkor Night Market.
Here, Oeng gives the home recipes and native ingredients she grew up eating a refined twist without compromising the dishes’ authenticity. Take, for instance, her lotus salad, which combines the roots and seeds of the flower with peanuts and a soy dressing and basil. When her mother cooked the dish, she only used the stem, but Oeng modernises it by tossing through its pastel pink petals.
Oeng possesses a genuine enthusiasm for cooking as well as sophisticated, well-honed techniques, but she reckons that it’s technology that is truly reinvigorating this new Khmer food scene, and that it’s the next generation of young Cambodian chefs who are the ones to watch. “All of a sudden, they have access to celebrity chefs and global food trends. I am excited to see where they take Khmer food,” she says.
She’s referring to a group of young progressive chefs who earned their stripes in five-star hotel kitchens but have now embarked on their own ventures – chefs like Pola Siv, who put himself through culinary school and worked in Michelin-starred hotel kitchens around the world before opening up the notable Mie Cafe in Siem Reap in 2012. Another leading the charge is Mork Mengly, an energetic 29-year-old who started his culinary career as a teenager, stoking the coals at a local barbecue joint. He later attended Siem Reap’s École d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule and worked in boutique hotels. Last July, with his friend, he opened Pou Restaurant and Bar, a modern eatery in a wooden house that was inspired by Singaporean Liao Fan’s Michelin-starred Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle stall.
“I wanted people to see that even though we were not in a fancy hotel, we could still produce interesting Cambodian food,” Mengly says.
At Pou, service may lack a little finesse and the décor is more vintage-chic than fine dining, but the dishes demonstrate a playfulness and depth of knowledge that has rarely been seen before in present-day Cambodian cuisine.
Mengly scoured the far-flung Cambodian countryside for unique, regional ingredients and recipes, presenting them in dishes such as a flavour-packed grilled mackerel glazed in an umami-heavy soy and chilli marinade and served with turmeric rice, beetroot sauce and wasabi mayonnaise.
The recipe for his Kulen Mountain sausages was inspired by an expedition to the jungle-covered national park about an hour north of Angkor Wat. “I met a local man there who made amazing sausages – he used the whole pig, chopping up the liver, the intestines, as well as the most delicious herbs and nuts and spices gathered from the jungle.” Mengly managed to jot down the recipe, adding extra spice, a sprinkle of yellow blossoms and a citrusy dressing made of native red tree ants to his own rendition.
While he says he looks up to chefs such as Noma’s René Redzepi in Copenhagen, and Gaggan Anand and his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok, it’s mostly for their exploration of science and sustainability. “Cambodians have always been using edible flowers and leaves in our food,” Mengly says. “It’s not just a trend or a fancy plating technique for me.”
So is the time ripe for a modern Cambodian food movement, and can it gain a wider audience? “As a country, we have been through a lot of trauma, and most of our parents did not have the luxury of eating good food,” Mengly says, adding that initially it was just foreigners eating at Pou. But Facebook is gospel to Mengly’s generation and soon hip young Cambodians were seeking out his restaurant, blogging and posting food photos. “In the last few years I have found my generation willing to spend a little bit more on dining out and be more adventurous. Before, they either ate at home or at street food stalls. To me, it seems like the gates have been opened to creativity.”
This was one of the reasons he and nine of his chef friends – mostly fellow graduates of the École d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule – decided to form a collective in 2015. Dubbed Asian Street Food Cambodia (ASFC), the community meets regularly to workshop new techniques, unearth obscure dishes and hold pop-up events where they give Cambodian street food a creative, modern twist.
However, if anyone has had an overwhelming influence on Siem Reap’s new wave of creative chefs, it’s Joannès Rivière. The acclaimed yet modest French chef has been a vocal champion of Cambodian cuisine since he arrived in 2003 to work as a volunteer pastry chef at the not-for-profit hospitality school Sala Bai. He soon entrenched himself in the local markets and village kitchens, learning the Khmer language and soaking up the cooking methods.
“He has been such a big inspiration for me, and was the first to show the importance of bringing Cambodian flavours to the next level,” Mengly says.
Rivière’s seven-year-old Siem Reap restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak, uses local ingredients and French techniques, and in 2016 was the only Cambodian restaurant to make the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The tasting menus change weekly, and it’s some of the country’s finest food. The wider culinary world has noticed: he guided Rick Stein when the TV chef visited, and celebrity chef Raymond Blanc lavished praise on Rivière’s cooking on his blog.
The food is exquisite, too. A recent menu featured a delightful lemongrass-marinated prawn salad with herbs, ambarella fruit, rice and coconut, while a black sticky rice porridge with quail, turnip, homemade oyster sauce and Siem Reap sausage was inspired by breakfast porridge bobor.
But in addition to extending Cambodian ingredients to their fullest potential, the ASFC chefs are also hyper-conscious of the environmental challenges looming on the horizon, from the quickly dwindling resources of the Tonlé Sap lake to the use of non-biodegradable products in restaurants. The group does not permit any plastic at pop-up events, and utensils are made from all-natural materials.
Over at Jaya House River Park, a sleek new boutique hotel, executive chef and ASFC member Tim Pheak maintains a strict no-plastic rule; instead using bamboo straws, recycled glass and packaging made out of scraps from nearby garment factories. He also grows micro greens and sources organic produce from suppliers such as Happy + Co farm.
Jaya’s onsite restaurant, Trorkuon, serves inventive creations such as the deconstruction of a classic Cambodian stir-fry of pork belly and eggplant – the meat braised, pressed and then smoked. “I use the same ingredients, the same seasoning but present it differently,” Pheak explains. “I enjoy the theatre and stories of a dish – I want my diners to be amazed.”
Just down the road at boutique hotel Riversoul’s Bridges restaurant, another ASFC member is creating waves with his mod-Khmer creations. At just 27, executive chef Seiha Chomnab whips up unique dishes that spotlight home-style Cambodian flavours and Japanese techniques, honed while working at one of Siem Reap’s top sushi spots. Seiha is most proud of his takes on tourist-favourite amok – a steamed, coconut-based curry that is often touted as the country’s national dish. His is served as steamed dumplings or as a gratin with fat scallops and turmeric-spiked rice.
“It is an exciting time,” Seiha says with enthusiasm. “We are lucky to speak many languages and have access to the rest of the world’s cooking trends.”
Chef Tim Pheak agrees: “What I love most is that there is no competition. We are all friends; we have the same passion,” he says. “Our mission is for people to be more aware of modern Cambodian cooking… and it feels like this is our moment.
Three Cambodian restaurants to try in Phnom Penh
Labaab – This year-old restaurant is dedicated to the cuisines found along the Mekong, and has a glamorous interior.
Malis – This swish venue was founded by food maven Luu Meng and offers a spread of royal dishes using top-notch ingredients.
Theato – This new eatery overlooking the Mekong whips up an elegant menu of modern Cambodian fusion food.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
The information is accurate as of press time. For the latest travel advisory updates, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights to Siem Reap, visit singaporeair.com. To join us in protecting the environment by offsetting your carbon emissions on your future flights, visit the following websites to learn more: carbonoffset.singaporeair.com.sg and carbonoffset.flyscoot.com
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine