The last fifty years have been a tumultuous time for Cambodia’s national cuisine. It was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, the radical militia that took over the country in the mid 1970’s and aside from burning cookery books - considered bourgeois- killed an estimated two million citizens. After, economically depressed, Cambodia fell into the shadow of neighbouring culinary heavyweights, Thailand and Vietnam. It is now in the midst of a comeback. Pushed along by a handful of chefs keen to highlight the uniqueness of its scope and pantry, dishes like chien chuon – fish with ginger and fermented soya beans - are making their way back onto the menu.
Noted, some of its ingredients are a little gruesome; fish left to rot in the sun for six months is considered a delicacy. But matching contrasts - sweet and bitter, salty and sour- with less chili than neighbouring Thailand and Laos, strong Indian influences and a delicacy refined through the royal courts, Cambodian cuisine holds its own. The trend surfaced in 2005 when Meric, an upscale restaurant at the former Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap, started adding old Cambodian dishes to their menu- some which hadn’t been seen for years.
“There was virtually no history on Cambodian food at the time and all ‘Cambodian restaurants’ were serving the same 10-15 Khmer dishes”, then restaurant manager Rinna Kan says. “And even fewer tourists were willing to try local food”. Meric inserted the more unusual dishes – like green mango salad tossed with local snake and chicken cooked with ambarella, a sour fruit related to the cashew - into a tasting menu so people wouldn’t have a choice other than to try. It was a bold move that before long gave other restaurants the confidence to step up their game. Meric has now been reinvented as the Dining Room and the Hotel de la Paix as the Park Hyatt.
Chef Pisith Theam’s father was a chef in Phnom Penh but burnt all of his books, notes and recipes when the Khmer Rouge took control, before changing his name and moving to the countryside. Theam has started to document the recipes his father can remember for the Dining Room, which includes dishes like locally caught tuna doused in Kampot green pepper and a mango and green tomato chutney. At the Raffles in Siem Reap, dishes once found in the royal courts have been given new life for the aptly named Restaurant Le Grand. Banana flowers, the astringent pinkish - purple buds which are dry on the palate, are sliced finely and added to whole wild river prawns and smoked fish. Grilled beef is tossed with lime, pepper and chili. It’s fresh and lively, although it would be nice to see only locally produced foodstuffs, rather than beef imported from Australia.
“People think there is nothing to Cambodian food, but there is. It’s the original Thai cuisine”, says chef Kethana Dunnet, perhaps not entirely correctly but definitely controversially. Cambodian born Dunnet was living in New Zealand when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975. Lamenting at how restaurants watered down dishes to suit tourists, she built her restaurant Sugar Palm with a menu based on her mother and grandmother’s recipes, who died under the Khmer Rouge. While the menu is heavy on the usual suspect dishes, like fish amok curry cooked in a coconut shell and it’s extremely well done; Dunnet’s grilled eggplant salad, smoky and nutty and topped with fried pork and garlic, is worth the plane trip alone.
Romdeng, one of a chain of restaurants run by non-governmental organisation Friends International to teach impoverished street children kitchen and front of house skills, isn’t shy in their outlook. As well as serving rare dishes like saroman, a Muslim lamb curry heavily influenced by early Indian traders, they also serve the Cambodian delicacy, tarantulas: big, fat, hairy, black spiders, and which they sell out of, every day.