Sunday, October 13, 2013

The country's cuisine and a celebrity chef are helping to turn Phnom Penh into something of a foodie's paradise

For those who live just to eat :)

Bangkok Post, 13 October 2013

A camera crew follows Luu Meng around the kitchen of his Phnom Penh restaurant, zooming in as he tosses ingredients into a hot wok.

In an age of celebrity chefs, this man is Cambodia's answer to Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, though without Ramsay's foul-mouthed tirades or Oliver's laddish Essex ways.

In fact, Luu Meng cooked with Ramsay for an episode of Gordon's Great Escape that looked at a cuisine slowly emerging from the shadows of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. Its rise is no surprise to the cognoscenti who treasure Phnom Penh as something of a foodie's paradise.

As he takes a break from filming to relax in the beautiful garden area of his Malis restaurant, the quietly spoken Luu Meng reflects on what sets Cambodian food apart from other Asian cuisines.

"Thai food is hot, spicy and sweet, while Vietnamese has more Chinese influences, but Khmer cuisine is all about fresh spices," says the 40-year-old chef, whose grandfather fled Mao Zedong's communist China and settled his family in the Cambodian capital.

"There are influences from India, but always with fresh ingredients, not powders. Our cuisine is not as spicy as Thai and we don't use as much fish sauce as Vietnam, although we do love prahok (Cambodian fermented fish paste).

"In France, they have almost unlimited types of cheese, and we are the same in Cambodia with prahok. It can be prepared in many ways, and the taste and texture are always different.

"We use very fresh spices that leave the diner feeling very light and refreshed. Indian food is characterised by spice, but we use a fresher spice."

Fish amok, regarded as Cambodia's national dish, is similar to Thailand's haw mok pla, though it does not use coriander or basil and has subtle differences in its curry paste.

Rock salt, Kampot peppers, Sihanoukville scallops and rich palm sugars are distinctive Cambodian ingredients. As in Thailand, salads are often a treat, particularly sait ko plear (raw beef salad), which is prepared with grated lemongrass.

Fried tarantulas, anyone? That is a speciality of Romdeng, one of the featured restaurants in a book, Cambodia's Top Tables, in which Luu Meng collaborated with Phnom Penh food writer Clive Graham-Ranger last year. A recipe helpfully points out how to kill the spiders before frying them.

Graham-Ranger, a veteran British journalist who settled in Cambodia eight years ago, has seen Phnom Penh's culinary scene take off in recent years as more Western chefs have added their influences to a country where it has long been possible to enjoy excellent French food. "You could eat out every night for a year here and still never get bored," he says.

Our meal at Malis gives a snapshot of vibrant Cambodian cuisine.

I am particularly impressed by the subtle fish amok, melt-in-your-mouth braised beef with galangal and prahok ktis, a delightfully rich paste of fermented fish, minced pork and coconut milk that is perfect when served with simple uncooked vegetables.

Luu Meng, who has travelled widely and taken on many culinary influences, believes Cambodian food deserves to be taken as seriously as French, Italian and Chinese haute cuisine.

"For me, the most important thing about cooking is quality _ quality of the ingredients, quality of the kitchen, quality of the service," he says. "Cambodian food is my passion and my future."

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Anonymous said...

i love khmer food. khmer food is actually very healthy. yes, we use lots of fresh ingredients from the farms and from nature, mostly. i think what set khmer food aside from others out there is the fresh ingredients which khmer people called "kroeung". most khmer dishes are not without the "kroeung".

also cambodia love to eat fish which is abundant from our tonle sap lake and rivers. i think a good business someone should look into cambodia is making fish jerky. make it to meet international standard and export it as well as selling it in cambodia. it could be a good profitable business. anwyway... love khmer food!

note: if you visit cambodia and want to know what khmer dishes are called, make sure to always ask the vendors who sell them because khmer varieties of food are not without their khmer names. keep that is mind. enjoy cambodia.

Jendhamuni said...

Dear 9:28 AM,

When it comes to food, my brain just stop working. I know nothing about food. I don't like to eat, I don't like to cook, I don't know how to cook and I don't want to learn how to cook either :) This is the topic I'm really bad at.


Anonymous said...

Yum yum!! @ people above.

Anonymous said...

Jendhamuni, at least you have your choice for being vegetarian and just eat to live, but for us as poors and displaced cambodians living in the city or countryside, we really want to live to eat, but we couldn't afford that. we are eating what we can find to prepare our meals, sometime we just make soups that combines mutiple kinds of vegetables and water with no meat or fish in it.
Honestly, we have never complained about our standard of living as long as Cambodia is independent and peaceful with good gonernance and no interfering to our country souvereignty from aggressive neighbors. So we don't concern much about luxury cars, big houses, smart phones, nice clothes and fancy foods in restaurants because we know that happiness is the state of mind.
Finally, we still appreciate you and other compatriots living peacefully overseas but you all still take time to care and support (emotional and financial) us in time of needs during protests or floods.
BTW, from good deeds you have done, we are wishing you all good health, peaceful mind and prosperity in the future.

Jendhamuni said...

Dear 11:58 PM,

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts wisely and being so kind. I was trained by Buddhist spiritual leaders at a very young age. So I got so used to living an uncomfortable lifestyle, so it makes me easy to travel from place to place without having to worry to much about food I consume, place I stay or fancy clothes. I am not picky at all. I love living a poor lifestyle, just like Lord Buddha who left his kingdom to become a beggar.

PS: I love animals so much. Would never want to turn anything into my food even if I don't have to kill them. Buddha did not tell me to give up this, but I chose to do that myself...

With deep respect,