It features tarantula, cricket and snake amongst its most cherished ingredients and is controversially declared by some as the basis for Thai cuisine. All but forgotten during the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia’s little known but unique cuisine is now making a come-back.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Cambodia’s riverside capital, Phnom Penh, was one of the most cosmopolitan towns in Asia. Having recently gained independence from France after 90 years of colonial rule, this quaint settlement, awash with grand colonial mansions and golden spired temples, was at the heart of a vibrant arts and music movement. New Khmer Architecture, a distinct building style blending the traditional motifs of Angkor Wat with French Art Deco, was flourishing. Universities brimmed with prospective scholars on Khmer poetry and classical music, and there was an energetic pop music scene that took its cues from the rhythm and blues movements.
Then came the Khmer Rouge, radical militants that enforced a social engineering project in agrarian communism so radical and brutal, it killed approximately two million Cambodians, or roughly 30 percent of the population, and sent Cambodia back to Year Zero.
Phnom Penh is now experiencing a rebirth. In the late noughties, Cambodia had one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, and thanks to nurturing from international agencies, the arts are also thriving.
Cambodia’s culinary traditions have been a lot slower off the mark. Despite a blossoming restaurant scene, most serve French or Pacific Rim or interpretations of neighbouring Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, with only a handful of quintessential Cambodian dishes making it to menus.
But now, thanks to the diligence of a handful of pioneering chefs and tourists with spending power, Cambodian food is starting to make something of a comeback.
“Khmer food is definitely experiencing a renaissance,” says Rinna Kan, the restaurant manager from Meric at the Hôtel de la Paix in Siem Reap. “The problem is that there is no written history about Cambodian food. Recipe books were destroyed, any suggestion of education or culture, bourgeois or royalty was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge days. Those few Khmer cooks that remember the old food have to cater to tourists, so the tastes get watered down”.
Opened in 2005, Meric reset Cambodia’s culinary scene when it started offering old recipes many that hadn’t been seen for years and obscure ingredients like snake and frog in high-class surrounds.
“People were shocked to see ingredients like prahok (a fermented and exceptionally pungent fish paste that has been left to ferment in the sun for up to six months), maam (a milder version of prahok) and fish from the lake,” says Joannes Riviere, a French-born chef who laboriously researched many of the dishes for Meric. “They were traditional recipes refined, meaning no bones, no guts and no muddy taste, with some work on the presentation. We compiled them into a degustation menu to showcase Cambodian food without leaving any escape to our guests.”
Dishes include a gorgeous tart green mango salad with local snake, frangipani and baby corn served with prahok. I love the ambarella, a sour fruit related to the cashew with chicken, a lively, refreshing salad topped with a generous dash of lime. Another must-try dish is stir-fried prawns with green peppercorn sauce, a dish originating from Kep on Cambodia’s southern coastline where it is eaten with local crab.
Riviere recently left Meric to open Cuisine Wat Damnak, a fine dining Cambodian restaurant set in an old wooden house in Siem Reap, a venture he undertook not just to preserve heritage, but also create a fine-dining experience using local produce.
“Western ingredients in Cambodia are not always the best,” Riviere tells me. “All dairy foods are UHT, temperate climate vegetables come from Vietnam or Thailand, and meat is from Australia. In my country, a real fine dining experience focuses on the ingredients. If you want to do the same here, then you have to cook Cambodian food. Our fish is from the lake; pigs and chickens are raised under the house; vegetables come from the farmer down the road and the fish sauce is from Kampot.”
The six and seven-course tasting menus include polished local delicacies such as borbor soup, which is “classic rice porridge made from a stock of quail bones, shrimp, calamari, black mushroom, turnip and garlic. We serve it with seared prawn, quail meat and a local sweet pork sausage, and top it with deep fried garlic, ginger, black peppercorn and saw leaf”.
For his current amuse-bouche, Riviere uses grilled puffer fish from the Tonle Sap, an unpopular fish often dried and grilled as a snack in the country side. “[The fish] has an enormous head and very big liver. Once you cut everything away you end up with the tail which is the size of a prawn with just one bone in the middle. We marinate this with a little bit of palm sugar, fish sauce and [local] pepper then grill it on charcoal and serve it with a quenelle of pounded ambarella with chilli and herbs. Puffer fish is one of the best fish in the lake. It is highly aggressive and not farmed so it is meaty, tasty and never muddy.”
Riviere has also written what is arguably Cambodia’s most comprehensive book on Khmer cuisine, Cambodian Cuisine by Periplus, with proceeds going to Sala Bai, a non-profit school that trains disadvantaged youths in hospitality.
On a dusty street, a five minute walk from the Hotel de la Paix, Kethana Dunnet has set up a cooking school specialising in traditional Cambodian cuisine. Dunnet started Sugar Palm Restaurant in Phnom Penh seven years ago hoping to offer tourists a taste of real home-style cuisine. Cambodian-born Dunnet was living in New Zealand when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Returning to live in Cambodia in 2002, she lamented the way many restaurants “didn’t use the correct ingredients in their Khmer dishes, which is based on fresh herbs that need to be obtained daily”.
“People think there is nothing to Cambodian food, but there is”, says Dunnet as I follow her around Siem Reap’s wet market, a jumble of bodies and fresh produce plonked under a tin shed in the centre of town. There are pork and buffalo sausages hanging in batches from the ceiling, dried river snakes (“Great with beer”), smoked fish (“Because the fishermen don’t have fridges”), red ant eggs (“A delicacy”), tamarind leaves, bees larvae and a multitude of jars storing the infamous prahok.
“Khmer food is the original Thai cuisine”, says Dunnet resolutely and quite controversially. “Thai food came from Cambodia, just like the alphabet.”
Dunnet and I spend the rest of the day in her kitchen at Sugar Palm, which is set under the vaulted ceiling of an old wooden house. All the dishes we cook are her mother and grandmother’s recipes, both who died during the Khmer Rouge period. There is fish amok, arguably Cambodia’s most famous culinary export, which we make by grinding the curry paste in a mortar and pestle and then cooking with fish fillets and coconut milk in a coconut shell. We also make a tofu amok, but it’s barely a cinch on its fish cousin; the texture of the tofu is far too similar to the curry sauce.
Next up is a gorgeous pomelo salad, similar in taste and texture to Thailand’s yam som o, and then a hearty smoked eggplant filled with salty pork and soya beans. The Chinese origins of the dish are undeniable, but it’s by far the best dish on the menu.
“Two thousand years ago, the basis for Cambodian cooking was Indian,” Luu Meng from Malis Restaurant in Phnom Penh tells me. “Then the Chinese came and the cooking style was influenced by them. Then we had the French, who above all taught us how to enjoy food.”
Malis Restaurant serves what Meng calls “living Cambodian cuisine” which continues to evolve through its interactions with others. Housed in the garden courtyard of an old colonial building, it is one of the classiest places to eat in Phnom Penh. Malis Restaurant serves a comprehensive menu of Cambodian dishes, including sae kroon herb sausages, and a mild prahok mixed with pork, garlic, lemongrass and chilli. I find Malis’ food a little less refined than the other restaurants mentioned here. The service can also be hit-and-miss; on a previous visit, half my table’s orders were wrong, it took two hours to serve mains and I was charged for dishes that never came at all.
Like Sala Bai, Friends International in Phnom Penh trains around 100 impoverished children a year in hospitality skills. The project started with Friends the restaurant, a wildly successful lunch time diner that provided great food and a platform for students to learn the skills of the trade. It was recently joined by a second restaurant, Romdeng, housed in an old colonial mansion that serves long forgotten Cambodian dishes, including some rather peculiar ones.
“The recipes from Romdeng came from everywhere,” Gustav Auer from Friends tells me over a lunch of Kampot style fish curry numya samlah and lamb curry saroman, which originated from the country’s Muslim population. “Unfortunately no recipes survived the Khmer Rouge, so we had to start from scratch. We serve tarantulas here, and every day we sell out.”
As if on cue, a waiter delivered a plate of hairy black spiders to the guests at the next table, who were jettisoning their bravery in trying this obscure Cambodian delicacy. I stop by their table on my way out to enquire about the spiders.
“Fantastic!” said an elderly Canadian woman dressed in an elegant sunhat and designer shades. “And we had the ants!”
“What did they taste like?” I ask.
Where to go
Meric:Sivutha Boulevard, Siem Reap, +855 63 966000; www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com; eight-course Khmer tasting menu is US$31(S$39)
Cuisine Wat Damnak: behind Wat Damnak; +855 63 965491; www.cuisinewatdamnak.com; tasting menus from US$15
Sugar Palm: Ta Phul Road, Siem Reap, +855 63 964838; lunch for two US$15, without drinks
Romdeng: 74 Street 174, Phnom Penh, +855 2 219565; www.friends-international.org; dinner for two US$30, without drinks
Malis: 136, Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh, + 855 23 221022; www.malis-restaurant.com; dinner for two US$40, without drinks