If Las Vegas can become a world culinary capital, why not Siem Reap?
The western Cambodia city, its bright lights and big hotels fed by an overflow of visitors to the ancient city of Angkor, now caters in somewhat slapdash fashion to an international potpourri of imported tastes and flavors.
But what are the best choices for those seeking to actually experience the classic cuisine of Cambodia, beyond wandering through the many markets to gawk at local oddities like moringa leaves and Tonle Sap snakehead fish?
Just a few decades back, following the Khmer Rouge’s famine-inducing dictatorship, such middle-class amenities as restaurants or cookbooks would have been unthinkable.
And even recent visitors, hoping for tasty local fare like they might find in neighboring Thailand, would instead have been faced largely with smelly fermented fish prahok and variants of amok or hor mok, a fish mousse of wildly varying consistency.
But with tourism and prosperity on the rise in Siem Reap and capital Phnom Penh, custodianship of the national cuisine has moved beyond well-meaning researchers and NGOs to a new generation of chefs, both domestic and international, all equally dedicated to their craft.
A bright lair of light, flowers and European design on the upper floor of a bland mall in Siem Reap, this has to be one of the most unusual culinary undertakings in the country, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.
Embassy’s all-female team is led by two chefs, self-dubbed the Kimsan Twins because of shared family names, who are graduates of NGO training restaurants for students from underprivileged backgrounds.
The pair has a refreshingly sophisticated approach as well as a devotion to local products, showcased in an experimental menu that changes every month.
Indigenous herbs like rogneang leaf and sauces like kapeek pow are combined with more familiar pastes of lemongrass, luffa and lake fish to create a six-course array, matched with wines and sorbets, but entirely Cambodian in feel.
Embassy, King’s Road Angkor Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Cuisine Wat Damnak is the only restaurant in Cambodia to have appeared on the prestigious Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants list.
The open-air seating at this pleasant house on Siem Reap’s outskirts is sometimes booked up months ahead.
It’s generally considered the leading showcase of what Cambodian cuisine may once have been and could rise to become again – given the proper attention to flavor and detail.
That’s because of the lifelong devotion of French chef Johannes Riviere, a personable and humble culinary master who came to teach Western techniques in a training restaurant and ended up being inspired by his adopted home in the East.
A quick procession of miniature melanges, some served in bowls, emerges from a glassed-in kitchen where Cambodian assistants in white frocks work with methodical calm.
Dishes on offer include Tonle Sap croaker fish curry and Angkor stout slow-cooked pork shank with okra, yellow noodle cake, crispy breast and fermented chili sauce.
A French touch is reserved for the amazing desserts, which feature tropical fruits. Riviere has a magical way of working with chocolate, too.
Cuisine Wat Damnak, between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School, Wat Damnak village, Sala Kamreuk Commune, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Chi Restaurant & Bar
Usually when hotel chains invest large sums in a refurbishment, dressing their house restaurant in a heavy wood and dramatically high-ceilinged look, it’s rare that they’ll give the spotlight to local, lesser-known fare.
But the sumptuous Anantara Angkor Resort in Siem Reap has given free rein to young German chef Kien Wagner’s “progressive Cambodian cuisine.”
Having already done a stint in provincial Kampot, source of Cambodia’s prized pepper, Wagner is no homesick transplant thumping for schnitzels and potatoes. He’s an unabashed fan of the local cuisine who borrows inspiration from a sous-chef who grew up in a Cambodian orphanage and, more significantly, his Cambodian wife.
Choices are broad at Chi – which means “herb” in Khmer, rather than referring to the Chinese “energy.” It’s couched in the expected five-star finesse and plating and none of it is too gritty or harsh.
Wagner is scrupulous about using local, chemical-free produce where he can find it, even if his staple lok lak stir-fry is made with US beef.
But his soups of pumpkin and Tonle Sap fish are entirely authentic, including the medicinal moringa tree and “rice paddy” herb.
Staples are big and hearty, and the Hamburg native is especially proud of how he’s married pork knuckle with Asian-style pickled vegetables and a glaze of anise caramel.
Chi Restaurant & Bar, Anantara Angkor Resort, National Road no. 6, Khum Svay Dangkom, Siem Reap, Cambodia
With tables mainly outdoors on the patio of a blandly contemporary two-story house, and a name that nods to its initial incarnation as a noodle shop, Mie Cafe would appear to be a casual dining spot.
But there’s nothing casual about the cooking.
It’s so serious, in fact, that the a la carte menu strains to outdo even Cuisine Wat Damnak in its complexity and innovation.
The results may be a bit more hit-and-miss, but they’re never boring and always worth a try. Chef-owner Pola Siv spent nearly a decade doing odd kitchen jobs overseas and obviously savors the freedom to do what he wishes on his return home.
How about some ratatouille with pineapple and local sausages served with locally made burrata cheese? Mekong langoustines served on pumpkin puree?
Learn here what “korkor” curry really is (hint: yellowish and great over fish or chicken).
Oxtail is stewed in espresso coffee and served with smoked radish and dipping herbs.
And you’ll find a very Cambodian protein – a powder made from red ants – applied in most unusual ways. There’s even a vegan menu.
Mie Café, #0085, Phum Treng Khum Slorgram, Siem Reap, Cambodia
In Phnom Penh, Malis is the only choice in town for a high-end introduction to Cambodian cuisine, presented in a luxurious but accessible ambiance.
The Khmer Rouge laid waste to the city’s dining scene. Chef Luu Meng, born the year before Phnom Penh was emptied of restaurants, and people, says he went back to old family recipes for inspiration.
But he’s also clearly taken some notes from Western surf ‘n’ turf restaurants.
There are plenty of familiar favorites for tourists, such as crab and lobster, or pork ribs, dressed with hints of local flavors.
It’s also the perfect place to sample the de rigeur fish malis, or fish head amok.
But the soups, often ignored by foreigners, are the real treasure troves and include ingredients like smoked fish, moringa and young chili leaves. Dare to dip in.
And Meng gets credit for including raw vegetables for dipping in prahok, similar to Thailand’s pungent shrimp paste.
Not the most adventurous dining, but a place where it’s almost impossible to go wrong.
There’s a new branch in Siem Reap too.
Malis Restaurant Phnom Penh, No. 136 Norodom Blvd , Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Malis Restaurant Siem Reap, Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap
Everything about this training restaurant for underprivileged youth is slickly cute and colorful.
It’s a bit disconcerting, considering many of the t-shirted trainees were apparently rescued from grim lives on the street, but the Tree Alliance, run by a French-led NGO that has seven restaurants around Asia, knows how to market its fair-trade products and food.
Whether in a turquoise dining room plastered with bright children’s paintings or in its lovely outdoor garden, this is a nice spot to combine social action with a meal that’s been creatively constructed in the manner of what might be termed high-end “hippie-Asian.”
However, the menu doesn’t just guide one’s choices with symbols standing for spiciness, but silhouettes of Angkor Wat to show that a dish is “truly Khmer.”
These include a tamarind fish soup and a luscious smoked eggplant dip – though it comes with pita bread.
All the salads are ample and well-scrubbed and it hardly matters that the rice balls here are stuffed with brie cheese.
Oddly enough, considering the new-age scene, there are also frog legs and crocodile burgers on offer.
The staff are 100% Khmer, for sure, but it’s just too bad Marum doesn’t go further to apply its fun flair to more that’s truly local.
Marum, #8A, B Phum Slokram, Siem Reap, Cambodia