Cambodia’s New Crop

It’s 8 p.m. in Siem Reap on a wet September evening. Tourists are thin on the ground here at this time of year, but Cuisine Wat Damnak is full. In the restaurant’s two dining rooms—one air-conditioned and contemporary, the other a breezy upstairs nook modeled after a traditional Khmer house—patrons slowly devour chef Joannès Rivière’s nightly tasting menu while the rain thunders down outside.

Locavore dining may be nothing new in the grand scheme of the global food scene, but it is in Cambodia, and Rivière is largely to thank. A bear of a Frenchman with a no-nonsense take on life, Rivière left his career as a pastry chef in the United States in 2003 to come to Siem Reap and volunteer as a cooking instructor at a nonprofit hotel and restaurant school. In 2005, having learned the Khmer language and even written a Cambodian cookbook, he joined the Hôtel de la Paix (which was renovated and rebranded as the even more luxurious Park Hyatt in 2013), advancing the degustation menu at its Meric restaurant along with his own passion for Cambodian cuisine.

Traveling the country, Rivière discovered a plethora of exotic ingredients: the slightly sour ambarella fruit, the deliciously earthy termitomyces mushroom, the mildly sweet Kampot pepper, the herbaceous lime-green marsh weed limnophila, the small puffer fish found in the Tonle Sap. The bigger surprise was that none of these had found a place in the kitchens of Hôtel de la Paix, which, like the town’s other top hotels, imported most of its perishable products from Europe and Australia. Undeterred, Rivière began integrating his findings into the menu at Meric, eventually developing a Khmer tasting menu that featured such things as beef-shank curry and green mango salad with dried snake.

Rivière refined his approach further after leaving the hotel in 2011 to open Cuisine Wat Damnak. Coupling strictly Cambodian ingredients with French cooking techniques, the restaurant captured diners’ imaginations and quickly became the vanguard for Cambodia’s locavore movement. On the night of my dinner there, the menu includes croaker fish pulled from Tonle Sap that morning, served with pounded sesame; a delicate and earthy consommé with wild prawns and raw egg; a tantalizing pork shank, caramelized on the outside and coated with zesty Kampot pepper; and, for dessert, a dragon-fruit meringue. Considering the five-course tasting menu costs just US$24, no one seems to mind when certain experimental dishes aren’t yet perfected, such as frog that’s a bit too delicate for the powerful prahok (fermented fish paste) that accompanies it.

“The best ingredients we can get are Cambodian, so that’s what we use,” Rivière explains. “Our fish is from the lake; the chickens are raised under the house; vegetables come from the farmer down the road. We use lesser known and often disregarded products because they are the freshest and the tastiest we can get.”

Thankfully, Rivière isn’t the only chef in Cambodia tapping the local bounty. Another is Timothy Bruyns, a South African who came to Cambodia in 2011 to be executive sous chef at Song Saa Private Island, a resort off the country’s southeastern coast. Now the owner of a Phnom Penh restaurant called the Common Tiger, Bruyns says, “There’s a perception that ingredients from the West are best, or even those shipped in from Thailand, but they aren’t. What’s best is what’s grown on our doorstep.”

When I stop into the Common Tiger for lunch, the tattooed, energetic Bruyns first presents me with a refreshing salad of raw tuna from the southwestern province of Koh Kong that “came off the boat just this morning” with lily-flower stem, banana heart, salted turnip, and hot basil. Following this is a rich salad of roasted wild mushrooms with miso and lemongrass puree, charred shallots, a sprinkle of forest fern tips, and fat fresh soya beans adding color and crunch. But as astoundingly good as that is, better yet is the dish he’s saved for last: glazed free-range pork ribs sourced from a farm outside Phnom Penh that have been cooked sous-vide for 20 hours with kombu (Japanese kelp), chili, ginger, lime leaf, and shallots.

Bruyns’ food, like Rivière’s, is difficult to label. “It’s not Cambodian cuisine by any stretch,” he says. “Rather, it just takes advantage of produce in the area. I put foie gras on the menu when we first opened, but one look at the faces of my Khmer staff, and I realized I wasn’t in France. So we abolished everything not Cambodian, with the exception of kombu and miso.”

He is, in fact, so committed to local produce that he refuses to keep a cool room at the restaurant, forcing the kitchen to procure its ingredients daily from the market. Or from foraging—when we meet, Bruyns seems particularly excited about an endemic spice called white cardamom, which grows in southwest Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains and imparts a menthol-like flavor that is perfect for curing tuna and duck. “None of my staff had even heard about this extraordinary spice; it doesn’t exist in the markets,” he says. “But go into the forest and get past the leeches, and it’s everywhere.”

While not every chef goes out exploring Cambodia’s natural pantry for new, wild ingredients to the extent that Bruyns and Rivière do, certain businesses are changing the suppliers’ side of the equation too. Eggscellent is one, a free-range egg enterprise started by Swiss expat David Keller to help create jobs and ameliorate poverty in the countryside around Siem Reap. Eggscellent now supplies eggs to numerous restaurants, guesthouses, and hotels in Siem Reap, including the Park Hyatt, which orders 300 eggs a day for breakfast.

The Park Hyatt has proved to be a major supporter of local suppliers, often spotlighting them in its Masters of Food and Wine series of events. One special menu was created to showcase Kampot peppers; another, the honeys from Nature Wild, an organization that supports sustainable wild honey collection around the country. The menu I try is an eight-course degustation that pairs Cambodian-inspired dishes with fruit- and spice-infused rice spirits from Sombai, a Siem Reap business. Devised by the hotel’s locally born sous chef Piseth Theam, the meal begins with tuna cured with Kampot pepper, fresh and light and perfectly matched with Sombai’s spicy mango-chili spirit. Thin slices of raw U.S. beef tenderloin marinated with lemongrass and kaffir lime are served with a lemongrass-and- lemon spirit, a sweet accompaniment for a dish so tender, and by the sixth course—a chicken and pineapple curry with winter melon served with coconut-and-pineapple spirit—everything just tastes like candy.

Theam, whose father was the chef de cuisine at the original Hôtel de la Paix from 1961 until 1963, plans to incorporate homegrown fruits, vegetables, and meats into his menus as well. He says he’s eager to get Cambodia’s food culture back to what it was in the days before the Khmer Rouge had their devastating effect upon the country and its culture. Re-establishing reliable supply chains will take a lot of effort, but, in the words of Joannès Rivière, “It’s a win-win—the community benefits, the environment benefits, and the food is fresher, tastier, and cheaper.” As the saying goes, you reap what you sow, and it looks like Cambodia is poised to regain lost ground.

Where to eat

For three tasting menus that highlight the best of Cambodia’s produce, try:

Cuisine Wat Damnak

Wat Damnak village, Siem Reap; 855-77/347-762; cuisinewatdamnak.com; six courses for US$28.

The Common Tiger

20 St. 294, Phnom Penh; 855-23/212-917; thecommontiger.com; five courses for US$50.

The Dining Room, Park Hyatt Siem Reap

Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/211-234; siemreap.park.hyatt.com; eight-course Sombai Tasting Menu for US$80.

Where to stay

Formerly the historic Hôtel de la Paix, the 108-room Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Sivutha Boulevard; doubles from US$224) offers pomp and glamor in Art Deco–style in the heart of downtown. In Phnom Penh, Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; 855-23/981-888; raffles.com; doubles from US$192) was one of five palace-like hotels built by the French colonists in the 1920s, and its rooms are accordingly fit for kings.



This article appeared in the April/ May 2015 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.