Cambodian Female Chefs on Cambodian Cuisine, Seasonal Produce and Lost Ingredients
Cambodian female chefs Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan helm an all-women kitchen and front-of-house team at one of Siem Reap’s finest Cambodian restaurants, Embassy. We chatted about Cambodian cuisine, seasonal produce, lost ingredients, and their future dreams.
Cambodian female chefs Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan are the executive chefs of one of Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants. Embassy is one of just a handful of outstanding Cambodian restaurants in Cambodia’s main tourist destination Siem Reap, gateway to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat, helmed by talented Cambodian chefs creating what I’ve called New Cambodian Cuisine – elevated forms of the local cuisine based on seasonal Cambodian produce that is elegant, refined and inventive.
As Asia Editor of Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, I included Embassy in my all-too-short allocation of just ten Cambodian restaurants, because what sets Embassy apart from the rest – aside from being ran by two Cambodian female chefs – is that things are taken up a notch or two.
Embassy not only serves up some of the Siem Reap’s most creative Cambodian cuisine – as do restaurants such as Mie Café, Mahob Khmer, Trorkuon, and Pou Restaurant – but it offers a true fine dining experience that’s hard to find in Cambodia’s main tourist destination.
From Embassy’s beautiful dining rooms with their tables clothed in white linen, set with fine glassware, quality cutlery and handcrafted ceramics to the superb service by the all-women front-of-house team who describe dishes in detail and answer diner’s questions about ingredients or cooking methods (and if they can’t, go straight down to the kitchen to get an answer from the chefs), the restaurant offers a special experience to food lovers.
Embassy has a good if not exciting wine list in a city where exciting wine lists are lacking, and when diners are finished, the chef (and restaurant manager as translator) make a beeline for the table to warmly thank guests for coming, sincerely ask how they enjoyed the meal and if they have any feedback, take their time to answer questions, happily pose for a photo, and gift a box of perfect delectable macarons in Cambodian flavours.
But most of all, for me, Embassy is all about delighting diners with the elegant and imaginative Cambodian cuisine that these two talented Cambodian female chefs have created and offer as a 7-course degustation menu – seven courses including an amuse bouche and palate cleanser – which changes monthly with the seasons.
All of that would be sufficient an achievement in itself, but chefs Pol and Sok not only helm Embassy – their baby – they’re also responsible for overseeing almost 20 venues of Siem Reap’s largest restaurant group, of which Embassy is the stand-out. That’s why they take turns in the Embassy kitchen and at the end of the evening you’re never sure which one you’ll meet unless you’re sitting in the downstairs dining room with a view of the kitchen.
I’ve been dining at Embassy for years, taking my Cambodia culinary tour groups there and recommending my bespoke itinerary clients dine at the restaurant, so I have been closely watching its evolution for years, and chatting to Pol and Sok when I dined.
But the first time I sat down to chat with the these two incredible Cambodian female chefs was for our DestinAsian magazine story on New Cambodian Cuisine earlier this year. I’m planning on talking to them a lot more because there are few things I’m as passionate about as Cambodia and Cambodian cuisine and how misunderstood and under-appreciated it is and the myths that exist about it.
At the time of Terence’s restaurant shoot for DestinAsian, Sok was heavily pregnant (you can’t tell at all, can you?) with her second child and close to giving birth. I dined at Embassy shortly after the interview and she wasn’t there on the night. Staff told me she’d worked right up until she went into labour, but that’s not unusual for Cambodian female chefs – or Cambodian women in general, who are some of the strongest and most resilient women in the world.
This is to say that I’ve used ‘Cambodian women chefs’ somewhat reluctantly as a title for this post – I didn’t use ‘Thai male chef Chalee Kader…’ as a title for my recent interview with the 100 Mahaseth owner-chef – but unfortunately it’s practical, convenient and means the post will get more eyes than if I’d used both women’s names (the title would be too long and people searching Google simply wouldn’t find this post), and one of my main missions in life is to promote Cambodian cuisine.
So what I also want to draw your attention to, and this is related to my use of ‘Cambodian women chefs’, and that’s that Cambodia isn’t necessarily – or wasn’t – a country where chefs needed to be identified by their gender, as traditionally more women have been professional cooks, whether they’ve been palace chefs, village cooks, or street food vendors.
Wander around Siem Reap and peek into the kitchens of most local neighbourhood restaurants and you’ll see women chefs. I can name many simple Cambodian eateries where the cooks are all women or a mix of women and men. Gender seems irrelevant. However, if you look at Cambodia’s luxury five-star hotels – most of which are ran by foreign hotel general managers – the executive chefs or head chefs are typically foreign chefs or Cambodian men and that’s another subject for discussion.
For now, I just want you to get to know two incredibly talented and inspirational Cambodian female chefs in the first of a series of interviews with Cambodian chefs I’ll be sharing here on Grantourismo. We’ll also be continuing the series with Bangkok chefs, with an interview with the 80/20 chefs next week.
Lastly, lots of you have been asking when we are publishing the Cambodian cookbook and the Cambodian culinary history we’ve been researching for five years. We’ll be updating you on this in just a few days.
Cambodian Female Chefs Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan on Cambodian Cuisine, Seasonal Produce and Lost Ingredients
Note: in the interview below our Cambodian female chefs Pol Kimsan is represented by ‘P’ and Sok Kimsan by ‘S’ and this is due to formatting.
Q. Culinary skills and recipes are passed down from grandmother and mother to daughters and granddaughters in Cambodia – what age did you learn to cook?
P. I didn’t start cooking until I was 16, as all I did was study until then, but when I did I followed my mum around on weekends to learn from her. Even now, I can’t forget her salad – a crispy noodle salad with grilled beef, herbs, and a sweet and sour sauce.
S. I started helping mum cook to make food for the family at the age of ten. We had ten people in one house – eight women and girls. My father passed away when I was working in Dubai. I loved to cook and eat the food. But I never wanted to be a chef. I wanted to be a doctor. But I’m happy.
Q. Were your mums and grandmothers good cooks?
P. My mum was such a great cook. She was the village cook for weddings and ceremonies until she passed away in 2006. She had also been forced to cook for the Khmer Rouge. My grandmother was also from a long line of village cooks.
S. My mum made an amazing bamboo soup with coconut milk and leaves she found in the forest. You can’t find those leaves anymore – we’ve lost them now. They looked like peacock feathers and grew on a small tree. When flowering it was very nice, green and red. Mum stays at home and plants vegetables and herbs. She’s now 66 or 68. She grows a lot in the garden around her house and sometimes she sells them.
Q. Cambodian cuisine is not only very regional with each region having its own specialties, but there are different dishes from town to town, village to village. Does your hometown influence your cooking?
P. I’m inspired a lot by the food of my homeland, Kampot. When I’m developing dishes and recipes, I try to remember what I ate when I was young and I draw on my mother’s recipes and cooking a lot. I love the Kampot nom banh chok (fermented rice noodles with a curry soup). It’s sweet and sour. In Siem Reap, the food is a bit more spicy. When I go to my homeland all I do is eat: I love the steamed duck and caramel pork, which they serve at Kampot weddings. When they know they are going to have a wedding, they feed the pigs well!
S. I’m from Siem Reap, from a village on the way to the Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. Before it was just the two of us, Pol and I, creating dishes, but now we ask the opinions of our team, as they all come from different villages and each village has different produce and they make different dishes. The team contributes ideas and suggestions and if they’re good we take them on board.
Q. What else inspires your cuisine? Do you do research?
P. I’ve been inspired a lot by recipes from the Royal Palace. I love the old way of making the steamed fish curry called amok trei, which has beaten eggs and is made over charcoal. They use shrimp paste instead of prahok. I researched for two years to plan Embassy, researching and searching for ingredients, researching the seasons and specialties of each region in Cambodia. I’m always researching, looking in Khmer recipe books, calling family and friends. I’ve developed 80-90 recipes since we opened Embassy.
Q. You only use local produce from Cambodia. Where does that produce come from?
P. Almost everything is Cambodian except a few things in the dry store – some sauces from Thailand, oyster sauce. All our vegetables and fruit are Cambodian, all our seafood, chicken and pork. We work with an organic producer in Banteay Srei who we buy produce from and I love their sugar palm and tomatoes.
S. Most produce comes from our local suppliers – all seafood comes from Sihanoukville, beef comes from Battambang. But most restaurants don’t do this as Cambodian produce is more expensive (30% more), so they buy cheaper produce from Thailand and Vietnam. We want to help Cambodian farmers so we visit local farms, sometimes with the Cambodian Chefs Association. But buying produce is not always up to chefs in Cambodia. I also go to the markets and I go look for things that suppliers don’t provide, like leaves from the forest, which I will buy directly from the market. Sometimes before I go to work I stop to collect leaves and herbs and small flowers. Sometimes I’ll get these from my mum. My mum still makes prahok (fermented fish paste), and I get this from her to use here.
Q. Your cuisine is also very seasonal and you change the menu monthly. Is that challenging?
S. Coming up with a new menu every month is not difficult. We just see what local produce we have. We follow the seasons. We see what people are growing and selling and eating, and to draw from that. We know the seasons and what grows in each season, so we know when mango season is and we will put that on the menu. I love the season after the monsoon ends when the flooding has finished and the water goes back to the Tonle Sap, and we can plant a lot of vegetables. I love January and February, when there are lots of herbs, vegetables and green leaves.
Q. The cuisine you’re creating here at Embassy is what I call modern Cambodian – you put a creative twist on traditional Cambodian dishes, enhanced by some classic European techniques and presentation. But how do you describe it?
S. Sure, it’s Cambodian. The taste of the food is Cambodian, all the ingredients are Cambodian, but the presentation is modern and European. All we change are things like replace herbs that we know people cannot eat. We are always thinking about the customer – only 10% of customers can eat chilli, spices and prahok – so we reduce the strong Cambodian flavours.
Q. Are you worried about the loss of culinary traditions in Cambodia?
S. In the countryside they will continue to maintain their culinary traditions as they always have. But I’m not so sure about the cities. I hope my kids and grandkids will know Cambodian food as I know it. We have already lost so many ingredients, especially the vegetable and leaves from the forest, as they’ve cut the forest down everywhere, and the soil is not as good due to chemicals.
Q. As Cambodian female chefs can you imagine cooking anything else but Cambodian food?
P. I only want to cook Cambodian food now but maybe one day I would like to explore Cambodian fusion, using Cambodian recipes and the flavours of Cambodia, but using really great quality foreign ingredients, such as lamb and veal.
S. When I worked in Dubai I cooked Italian. I’d like to cook Cambodian fusion one day.
Q. What do you think of Siem Reap’s Cambodian restaurants?
P. The Cambodian chefs here now are more creative and clever than ever. It makes us proud to think that people are coming here to eat Cambodian food – to eat our food.
S. Restaurants in Siem Reap now are very different to ten years ago. They show off a lot of Cambodian produce and they are very good and the chefs are very creative.
Q. Future dreams?
P. My dream is to have my own restaurant that everybody who comes to Siem Reap wants to go to.
S. I always want to be a chef but I want to have a farm and grow a lot of vegetables and herbs and edible flowers. I love to plant things.
Kings Road Angkor complex
The Riverside, Siem Reap
++971 (0) 89 282 911
Have you eaten at Embassy and met these amazingly talented young Cambodian female chefs? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.