New Cambodian Cuisine is the name I’ve given to the inventive Cambodian food being created by a handful of young Cambodian chefs helming Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants. Together they represent an exciting new grassroots Cambodian food movement that deserves your attention.
I rarely share our published work these days, but I’m excited about our 11-page feature story Cambodia’s New Crop in the latest April-May issue of DestinAsian travel magazine about the “clutch of restaurants run by young homegrown chefs raising the profile of Siem Reap as a bona fide food destination – and preserving Cambodia’s culinary traditions in the process.”
While we spent ten days working on this story, including many hours of interviews with the young Cambodian chefs and five restaurant shoots – and I have to say I really love Terence’s photography for this piece – it’s a story I’ve been researching and pitching to magazines for years, having watched several of these Cambodian chefs and their New Cambodian Cuisine evolve since we moved to Siem Reap in 2013. So an okun tom tom (a big big thanks!) to DestinAsian editor Chris for commissioning this story.
The story isn’t up on the DestinAsian site yet, but you can get a preview of the April-May issue and watch this space and I’ll let you know when it is on the site. You can also subscribe to the print edition and get a complimentary digital edition.
In the meantime, I want to give you a taste of New Cambodian Cuisine, the Cambodian chefs behind it and their restaurants where you can sample this deliciously creative yet distinctly Cambodian food.
New Cambodian Cuisine – The Cambodian Chefs Redefining Cambodian Food
Our story in the latest issue of DestinAsian magazine looks at the six innovative young Cambodian chefs helming the most exciting of Siem Reap’s finest Cambodian restaurants who are driving a New Cambodian Cuisine movement.
While each of the Cambodian chefs interviewed has his or her own unique style and is creating a cuisine completely different to the next, they have much in common: a love for their country’s food, a fondness for mum’s and grandma’s cooking, a respect for Cambodia’s culinary heritage, and a commitment to continuing to use the local Cambodian produce they grew up farming and foraging for with their families.
All of the chefs come from humble backgrounds, raised in the countryside, in rural villages and small provincial cities, where the aim of most farmers is to grow enough to sustain the family and then sell what’s left. Despite difficult upbringings and their current success, each chef harbours a dream to return to the land.
I’ve edited the following snippets from my story Cambodia’s New Crop on the emergence and flourishing of New Cambodian Cuisine in Siem Reap and hope it will motivate you to want to read more.
Pola Siv, Chef-Owner of Mie Café
“You can’t find these flavour combinations anywhere else,” 34 year-old chef Pola Siv told me at his restaurant Mie Café, which isn’t a café but one of Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants. The dish in question was a ceviche of raw Kampot scallops, young palm fruit and seaweed in virgin olive oil with galangal and lemongrass zest, a subtle kick of chilli, broccoli ice cream, and miniature mauve star-fruit flowers. Chef Pola’s mother has been an inspiration and he uses her homemade prahok (fermented fish), palm sugar and sticky rice crisps in the restaurant. After putting himself through Swiss culinary school, Pola trained at Michelin-starred Domaine de Châteauvieux in Switzerland. “It was the hardest job of my life and I enjoyed it so much. But as the dishes were coming out, all I could think of was how I could replace some ingredients with Cambodian ingredients,” he told me. “Since Switzerland I have wanted to do the Cambodian food I am doing. Now I want to keep doing more of this. I want to inspire a younger generation of chefs.”
Sothea Seng, Chef-Owner of Mahob Khmer and Lum Orng restaurants
‘Mahob’ means ‘food’ in Khmer and chef Sothea Seng’s style of modern Cambodian cuisine at his restaurant Mahob Khmer was inspired by the food he ate as a child. The son of farmers, Sothea started cooking at age ten, helping his mother to make rice and prepare simple meals, such as fermented fish omelette. As they never knew what they’d have to eat the next day, his mother taught him to preserve and pickle vegetables. Sothea uses typical Cambodian ingredients such as palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut, and lemongrass, and loves using indigenous ingredients like edible flowers, red ants and tarantulas. He has an organic garden on the edge of Siem Reap, where he grows vegetables and herbs. “I wanted to offer traditional Cambodian food with modern presentation,” he explained of his cuisine at Mahob Khmer. “Old countryside meets the city with creativity. New techniques enhancing old flavours. It’s all about quality ingredients, textures, and originality. But I don’t create something that’s far away from traditional Cambodian food.” Update June 2019: Chef Sothea has just opened Cambodia’s first farm-to-table restaurant, Lum Orng, where he’s experimenting with New Mekong Cuisine, inspired by the old Khmer Empire territories of southern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, Southern Laos, and much of Thailand.
Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan, Executive Chefs, Embassy
Kampot-born Pol Kimsan, 34, and Siem Reap-raised Sok Kimsan, 32, oversee ten outlets of Siem Reap’s largest restaurant group, yet fine dining restaurant Embassy is their baby. Like their male counterparts, the two chefs grew up helping their mothers’ from a young age. A very pregnant (with second child) Sok told me she started cooking at ten, making food for ten people in their house, as well as planting vegetables and foraging, something she still does on her way to work. Pol’s mother was the village cook, as was her grandmother and ancestors before her, responsible for catering Buddhist ceremonies, weddings and funerals. Both women went to hospitality training school, worked in five-star hotel restaurants in Dubai, and staged at a three Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Pol spent two years planning Embassy, researching local ingredients by season, thumbing through recipes, consulting family and friends, and sourcing produce. The result: a repertoire of some 90 recipes and seasonal seven-course degustation menus of “100% Cambodian” dishes that change monthly. “I only want to cook Cambodian food,” Sok told me. “And to have a restaurant that everybody who comes to Siem Reap wants to go to.”
Mengly Mork, Chef & Co-Owner of Pou Restaurant
Siem Reap’s most attention-grabbing Cambodian cuisine, pictured above, is surprisingly its most traditional, coming out of the rustic upstairs kitchen of Pou Restaurant, in an un-renovated traditional wooden house. In a brown t-shirt, chef Mengly Mork cooks over coals on a clay brazier of the kind that is found in most Cambodian homes, which his ancestors cooked on for thousands of years. He whooshes away a few flies lured by the enticing aromas. Mengly has had the least experience of this clutch of young Cambodian chefs, cooking in small boutique hotels, a bar, cafe, and hospitality training restaurant, Spoons, before opening his casual Cambodian restaurant last year. Pou’s recent success is no surprise when you see Mengly’s vibrant plates with their grids and licks of colour and abundance of edible flowers that enliven the table. For all their creativity, what is being dished up is very traditional. “All I am doing is presenting our local ingredients that people don’t normally see – like bee hive and red ants – in new ways with beautiful plating. A lot of people travel for food and I want to serve them local food.”
Pheak Tim, Executive Chef of Trorkuon
Born in the countryside in Takeo, near Phnom Penh, 28 years old chef Pheak Tim’s father abandoned his mother when the chef was five. To support her family, his mother moved to Phnom Penh and opened a market stall. Pheak helped her in school holidays, chopping greens and washing dishes. After graduating from hospitality training school in Siem Reap, Pheak worked everywhere from the Sofitel and Song Saa Private Island to the Aqua Mekong boat, before being appointed executive chef of Trorkuon, the Cambodian restaurant at luxury boutique hotel Jaya House River Park. Aside from some imported beef and lamb and condiments from around the region, all of the produce Pheak uses is local. “It must be Cambodian for me. All I’m changing is the presentation and maybe an ingredient or two, but it’s Cambodian,” the chef assures me. “Most people know Thai food but they don’t know our food, so I have to promote Cambodian food. No way we can lose our Cambodian culinary heritage.”
You can read our full story on the emergence of New Cambodian Cuisine in the April-May issue of DestinAsian magazine. Watch this space and I’ll let you know when the story is on the site or subscribe to the print and digital editions. Click through for reviews and links to the Cambodian restaurants covered above.