A Taste of Siem Reap — Sipping Sombai Infused Rice Spirit
Liquor makes an intoxicating, nostalgia-inducing souvenir. Bring a bottle home, mix that favourite cocktail from your holiday, and you’re drinking in your trip all over again, recounting memories with each glass you share with friends.
An expat couple in Siem Reap hope travellers will remember their time in Cambodia after sipping their Sombai infused rice spirit. which has arguably has become the must-buy Siem Reap souvenir. If we didn’t live here, we’d take some ‘home’.
Many years ago when we went to Cuba, it became something of a ritual to sip a mojito or two at the end of each day’s exploration. A terrace bar in a fort with fantastic sea views became a favourite spot. I remember the mojitos were different then to how they’re now served at bars around the world.
The Cubans didn’t use as much ice (I recall always wanting the drinks to be colder) and they were crammed with leafy stalks of fresh mint, not the handful of leaves you see used these days. They were also sweeter and there were always grains of sugar at the bottom of the glass. And they cost all of $1.
When we returned to Sydney, few people knew what a mojito was at the time (it hadn’t yet spread all over the world, as it has done in the intervening years), so we made it a weekly tradition of having friends over to enjoy the late afternoon light on the harbour from our balcony while sipping mojitos, accompanied by bowls of fresh guacamole. (There wasn’t any food when we first visited Cuba, just plain cheese pizzas and bocadillas con queso y jamonada (bread rolls or sandwiches with cheese and fake ham), and we’d also been to Mexico that same trip.)
Those mojitos were a great excuse to reminisce about our travels. And I guess, as a late 20-something, I secretly hoped it was also read as a sign of our increasing cosmopolitanism. We’d been to Cuba, a country only communists, trade unionists and sex tourists were visiting back then. And we’d drank mojitos in Havana!
We established similar traditions over the years, wherever we lived, with bottles of liquor that we would cart home from travels to other countries. For a while it was margaritas, after we brought mezcal and tequila back from Mexico. I finished the bottle of pisco I bought from a distillery in Chile before I left the country. But I did manage to save the cachaça from Brazil, so when I returned from South America we began a sunset ritual of sipping caipirinhas, years before the global craze.
If you’re starting to think we are cocktail trendsetters, forget it. We’re only just starting to see pisco getting used around the globe and limoncello is rarely offered outside Italian restaurants – for some reason it doesn’t travel well. Why is that? We hardly touched the bottles we brought home from the Amalfi. Maybe it was just harder to imagine being back in Italy from our apartment in Dubai. We had no trouble with arak or raki.
I can’t imagine Cambodia’s national drink of rice wine, which is really rice ‘spirit’, would travel well either. Get it back home and it will probably taste like nail polish remover and remind you of little else other than the heady ‘scents’ that wafted from the tiny hair salons and beauty shops you squeezed by in Siem Reap’s Old Market, rather than the time you first tried it, wherever that might have been.
Our first taste was at a Laotian village on the Mekong, and our second time, which was much more memorable, was on a trip to Bac Ha markets in northern Vietnam, where we drank several bottles of the potent brew with a group of locals. We bought a bottle to take home, but it sat in our hotel mini-bar in Sapa for days and I think we left it there when we left town.
Taste it at the home distillery of an old Cambodian bloke from Battambang who has been making it for years, dredging the water from the creek behind his bamboo home, and filtering, distilling and infusing the potent brew with local herbs and spices, before packaging it in plastic 1-litre waters bottle and recycled supermarket bags, and it’s a different story. Although that bottle sat in the fridge for a while too.
Rice is the main staple of Cambodia. A rich agricultural region here isn’t known as the country’s ‘fruit bowl’ or ‘bread basket’, it’s known, as Battambang is, for instance, as Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’. It therefore makes sense that throughout their long history, the Khmer people have used rice as the base of the distillation of alcohol to produce rice spirit. They infused it with spices, herbs, roots, and fruit, to use it for traditional medicine as well as to drink socially.
Visit any village on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll find rosy-cheeked locals – men and women – with a glint in their eyes, playing cards, sharing laughs, lazing around on bamboo or wooden platforms or swinging in a hammock, as they share a bottle (or three) of a very crude rice wine that one of their neighbours has probably distilled. Don’t be surprised if they invite you to join them. Do, but, trust us, there’s no need to take a bottle home.
You will probably want to take home a bottle of Sombai, though…
Sombai (pronounced ‘Som Bai) means “some rice, please” in Khmer, and it’s a brand of infused rice spirit that was developed by Joëlle Jean Louis and Lionel Maitrepierre, an expat couple who live in Siem Reap.
Although its base is Cambodian rice spirit, which the couple sources from a local producer, it’s not as potent or as heady as the pure stuff, as they have infused it after distillation, with Khmer spices, herbs, roots, and fruit, such as lemongrass, lime, tamarind, ginger, galangal, and chilli. It’s Cambodian in taste, yet it should travel well. It’s also something you can serve to friends without fearing that they might drop dead.
Joëlle and Lionel were inspired by traditional Cambodian rice wine, but they knew it was too heady and medicinal for most people and not always safe for foreigners with weak stomachs or sensitive dispositions. Drawing further inspiration from the fruit infused rums of Joëlle’s native Mauritius, they began experimenting with infusions of premium quality rice spirits back in May 2012.
The couple only use local ingredients in the rice spirits. The Anise-Coffee rice spirit, for instance, is made from Cambodian coffee beans from Ratanakiri province.
Back in April 2013, Joëlle and Lionel opened a tasting lounge in their home overlooking lush rice fields two kilometres out of Siem Reap and began spruiking the aromatic liquors to selective restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels in Siem Reap, as well as selling it at their stall at the artisanal Made in Cambodia Market at Shinta Mani resort.
Soon after, the pretty Sombai bottles – hand-painted by local artists and sporting the traditional Cambodian checked krama (scarf) wrapped around their necks – became Siem Reap’s must-buy souvenir, while a sunset tasting at the hospitable couple’s home became the thing to do after a day spent scrambling Angkor Wat and before heading out to dinner.
A few months ago, the couple opened new tasting rooms and an infusion workshop in another beautiful traditional Khmer timber house a little over halfway between their home and Wat Damnak village in Siem Reap.
There they take visitors through tastings of the whole range of Sombai’s rice spirits, which currently come in eight blended flavours, each of which has two flavours – the Ginger-Red Chili is my favourite.
Joëlle and Lionel take the time to describe the flavour profiles (they have detailed tasting notes, along with cocktail recipes, on their website) and explain which flavour is best served as a shot, aperitif, mixed in cocktails, offered as a digestif, used in cooking, or poured over a dessert (the Banana-Cinnamon).
You’ll see small selections of the charming bottles sold in gift stores, souvenir shops, mini-marts, and supermarkets all over town. They also have a stall at the Made in Cambodia market. But it’s much more fun to take a tuk tuk out to the Sombai tasting rooms, meet Lionel and Joëlle, do the tasting, and buy some bottles there from their more comprehensive range. I’ll be including a bottle of Sombai in the Siem Reap edition of Take-Homes when I finally get around to doing one.
A tasting is a fun thing to do late in the afternoon before you head out for cocktails and dinner, but it’s also a great way to escape from the monsoon rains. Especially if you follow it with a cocktail class at Asana in the old town…
Sombai Tasting Rooms 176 Sombai Road (look for a red concrete wall), five minutes by tuk tuk from Old Market area, Siem Reap. It’s best to phone ahead and book a tasting. Also get your tuk tuk driver to call for directions in Khmer if he doesn’t know the place: +855 (0) 95 810 890 (English/French) +855 (0) 77 579 130 (Khmer). Tastings 10am-6pm. www.sombai.com and Sombai Facebook page. Prices: $5 (10cl), $7 (16cl, boxed), $10(16cl, hand-painted), $13 (70cl), $20 (70cl, hand painted).