Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng is committed to preserving Cambodia’s culinary heritage – and pickling! I chatted to the chef about his childhood growing up on a farm, his love of Cambodian produce, his inspirations, and his concerns about the future of Cambodian cuisine.
Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng is the owner of one of Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants, offering authentic local food in Cambodia’s main tourist destination Siem Reap – the launching pad for excursions to Angkor Wat and the home of an under-appreciated cuisine about which countless myths exist and an array of delicious culinary experiences that put those myths to rest.
Along with the Kimsan ‘twins’, the two Cambodian female chefs helming fine diner Embassy, where they’re creating tasting menus rooted in seasonal produce, chef Mork Mengly, owner of Pou Restaurant, who is committed to cooking local food for people who travel for food, and chefs Pola Siv and Tim Pheak (who I’ll introduce you to over coming weeks), 33 year-old Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng is redefining Cambodian food and is part of what I call the New Cambodian Cuisine movement.
Terence and I did a story on these ambitious young Cambodian chefs and their restaurants for DestinAsian magazine early this year, and as Asia Editor of Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, a new series of guides to ‘good’ restaurants, I selected them as five of ten Cambodian restaurants that are eco-conscious, ethical and sustainable. I often include these restaurants in the bespoke itineraries I craft and if I don’t take culinary tour participants to dine at Mahob Khmer, it’s because chef Sothea and his team are giving them cooking lessons on his small organic herb garden at Issan Lodge, he and wife Sonita’s charming accommodation.
‘Mahob’ means ‘food’ in the Khmer language, so the restaurant is called ‘Khmer Food’, and there is a distinction between Khmer food and Cambodian food. Khmer food refers to the food cooked by Cambodia’s predominantly Khmer population, while Cambodian food takes in everything: Khmer food, as well as Chinese-Cambodian, Chinese, and the specialties of Cambodia’s Cham Muslims, such as Saraman curry, a cousin to Thailand’s Massaman curry.
The menu was inspired by the Cambodian food that Seng ate as a child growing up in Kampong Cham, 250 kilometres from Siem Reap, and it includes some dishes of Chinese-Cambodian origin, which is why I call it Modern Cambodian cuisine. It’s located in a handsome remodelled traditional timber home, with red Chinese lanterns swinging from a trellis at the entrance and upturned woks that serve as lamp-shades to lights that guide diners along the path to the dining space after dark.
It’s a restaurant that gets a mix of tourists, locals and expats, which means the menu features some crowd-pleasing Cambodian favourites, such as a green mango and prawn salad, fish amok, and caramelised pork with palm sugar, ginger and black pepper, but it also offers wok-fried beef with red tree ants, and deep fried frog’s legs with crispy rice flakes
But it’s the daily specials and the degustation menu where Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng experiments. Cambodians have cooked with flowers long before it was fashionable – deep-fried frangipanis have been eaten for centuries – and on the day we went to shoot the DestinAsian story, Seng pan-fried pumpkin blossoms which he had stuffed with prawn amok, a firm steamed prawn mousse, which he served with a house-made chilli-plum sauce.
The chef also did a dainty ceviche-style salad of sweet freshwater shrimp tossed with crispy wing beans and bitter flowers, offset by a spicy, sweet and sour house-made chilli-lemongrass dressing. Raw fish dishes also have a long history in Cambodia. But it was the dramatic-looking main dish above, which stood out: caramelised river fish fillets slow-braised in palm sugar, ginger, garlic, star anise, and lemongrass, served on a bed of sautéed lotus roots and straw mushrooms, garnished with young tamarind leaves.
As with the chefs from Embassy and Pou restaurants, I sat down to chat to Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng earlier this year for that DestinAsian magazine story on New Cambodian Cuisine. Below, you’ll find the out-takes from that interview.
Mahob Khmer Chef Sothea Seng on Preserving Cambodia’s Culinary Heritage – and Pickling
Q. In Cambodia, cooking skills and recipes are passed down from grandparents to parents to children – was your mum a good cook?
A. Mum was not a good cook… okay, okay, she was good at cooking for our family. She is very traditional – she loves prahok in every kind of food! Dad is very easygoing – he eats a lot and eats whatever she gives him. I remember he would pick a cucumber from the vine and just eat it with salt and pepper. But for me, I had to make a chilli sauce to eat with the cucumber.
Q. My Russian grandfather also ate cucumbers from the vine, just with salt – washed down with vodka. What age did you learn to cook?
A. My parents were farmers in Kampong Cham province, so we were living in the countryside where it’s normal for parents to share roles. When dad was working in the fields, mum was selling something in front of our home. They both worked hard. Mum asked me to help cook rice from ten years upwards – we didn’t have an electric rice cooker – and she would ask me to peel vegetables, so I could make many things from a very young age for my family.
Q. What did you make?
A. Some easy soups, stir fry vegetables, a few different types of omelettes, like the fermented fish omelette and minced pork omelette.
Q. What produce and ingredients were you cooking with?
A. As my father was a farmer, he was growing a lot of vegetables during that time. We cooked what we had. Sometimes we had too much cabbage, so I had to cook cabbage and we had to eat cabbage for two weeks. Then it was morning glory. Then it was onion – I made stir-fry onion, onion omelette, onion soup.
Q. Was it a tough life growing up in the Cambodian countryside?
A. Yes, it was. During the growing season it was very hard to know how things would turn out. The situation is really not fair on agricultural people. Buyers reduce and increase the prices as they like, so we as farmers have to play some tricks. We would preserve some vegetables for later, but we told them that we had less than we did so they would pay more. Because when we have too much of something, they lower the price. So mum would sell half the vegetables and the other half would be preserved or converted to pickled cucumber, for example, and after, when it was ready, they would sell that. They would grow things to both sell and for their own use.
Q. Now you’re a chef, can you do something to help farmers?
A. We should work as chefs with the farmers to buy their produce at a better price and make them feel more valued. For example, when mango season comes, prices for mangoes drop. Farmers don’t feel valued because the mango price is so low so they don’t even pick them. Now we are working with farmers in Banteay Srei and we are persuading them to grow more kinds of ingredients that we need. They might only grow ten ingredients, but they will be ingredients that we will buy. Have two lines of spinach, two lines of cucumber, etc, and now they are listening and we are working with them.
Q. Was there something your parents taught you then that you continue to do as a chef?
A. Mum taught me how to preserve. We didn’t know if tomorrow or the day after we would have fresh vegetables, so we had to preserve many things. We preserved soy beans, cabbage, we made pickled onions. I think a lot about my mum and my grandma preserving things – lime pickles, cucumber pickles, small watermelon pickles. I plan to do a lot more preserving and pickling for my restaurants.
Q. So your childhood influenced you a lot as a chef?
A. Yes, this is why I love Cambodian produce so much. This is why I have my own organic garden. It costs me more to have a garden than to buy things. I could buy the produce for less. But I love to grow things.
Q. Unlike a lot of young Cambodian chefs, you didn’t go to hospitality school or learn at a training restaurant, you started working at 15 as a waiter before getting a job as kitchen hand at the Sofitel.
A. I told them I wanted to be a chef, but I had to show them I could do it. I first started cooking staff meals in the cafeteria. Then asked if I could go work in other restaurants after my shift finished to learn more to help out. That’s why I have different skills. I saw a lot of new techniques and utensils that I loved. Each shift I felt like a soldier with equipment going into battle. After a few years, I got a job at Le Meridien as chef de partie, my first supervisor level job.
Q. Then you went to Dubai. Crazy to think that Terence and I were dining at the restaurants where you were cooking during the same period.
A. Ha! Ha! Yes, a Cambodian chef friend came back from Dubai and he recommended me to the Grand Hyatt head chef. Seven or eight of us went there from Le Meridien and Victoria hotels, including the Kimsans. I was first commis at Andiamo, Indochine, then Manhattan Grill. I never took a day off. I really wanted to learn, always wanted something new to learn, as I was thinking about coming back to Cambodia. I loved it, especially the Grand Gourmet Summit – I met many celebrity chefs and learnt a lot, I saved a lot, but when summer came, I felt depressed, stressed, and suffocating in the heat.
Q. So you returned to Cambodia. What did you do next?
A. Yes, in 2008-09 I worked at Nest as executive chef, then the Plantation Hotel in Phnom Penh as executive chef and F&B manager. Then the Metro and Hakkasan restaurants. The owner of Lynnaya Hotel in Siem Reap used to go to Metro and asked me to open Palate restaurant. Then I got married and together my wife and I started our own restaurants.
Q. When did you decide to open Mahob Khmer and what was your inspiration?
A. Having my own restaurant had always been a dream, but I wasn’t confident. Then I thought back to my childhood and the Cambodian food we ate. We lived in an old wooden house as a child. I thought about the Cambodian food in that house and I had the idea for Mahob Khmer. So we started looking for an old wooden house and found it and fell in love with it. Location wasn’t important. I knew I could transform this house into a nice restaurant.
Q. What was your vision for Mahob Khmer’s cuisine?
A. I wanted to offer traditional Cambodian food with modern presentation. Old countryside meets the city with creativity. I wanted to add new techniques to enhance old flavours. It’s all about quality ingredients, textures, and originality. But I don’t create something far away from traditional Cambodian food.
Q. Describe what you’re doing at Mahob Khmer.
A. We have a seasonal menu but I create daily specials that change according to my inspiration – partly I am inspired by the season, partly my mood, and partly it’s the new seasonal ingredients that inspire me. Before I was using the typical traditional ingredients – palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut, lemongrass, etc – but in the last year or two I started to use more ingredients that Cambodian people typically use in the countryside: edible flowers, tarantulas, red ants, etc, and I’m trying to combine them.
Q. What else inspires you?
A. A Cambodian artist friend started to inspire me – he takes me to the mountains and lakes to appreciate the natural landscape. I’m starting to travel a lot more. I went to Stung Trey and observed the fisherman and researched how I could bring those Mekong River fish here. I love the sour fish soup from there. I am planning to go to the east more, to Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, and bring the ingredients from there here to Siem Reap.
Q. You said you’re concerned about the loss of Cambodia’s culinary heritage.
A. Yes, I worry a lot about Cambodia losing its culinary heritage. The countryside is changing. Villages are getting electricity and turning into towns. I’m worried about the loss of local ingredients. Chefs in the industry tone down flavours to serve foreign people. So many restaurants advertise that they have Cambodian food but they have tom yung goong soup from Thailand on the menu. This is why I want to focus on Cambodian. Young people don’t know what is real Cambodian food or not. We have to change that. We need to introduce Cambodian and Khmer cuisines to the world and take our food outside the country to show people how we cook.
Q. Future dreams?
A. My dream is to have my own destination restaurant in the countryside, on a farm, where we cook by season, so I am sure that I am using 100% local ingredients grown on my own property and I only use those. My mum and grandmum make a lot of prahok, dried and smoked fish, cured meats, pickles, and preserves. I want to do that too. UPDATE: Chef Sothea opened that restaurant in mid-2019 and it’s a farm-to-table restaurant called Lum Orng, which means ‘pollen’ in Khmer.)
Mahob Khmer Restaurant
137 Traing Village, between River Road and Charles de Gaulle Boulevard
(If coming from Siem Reap centre, turn right after the Sofitel)
Siem Reap, Cambodia
+855 (0) 63 966 986
Have you eaten at Mahob Khmer Restaurant and met Chef Sothea Seng and tried his food? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.