Nestled between the culinary powerhouses that are Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is often overlooked as a destination for good food. But a growing number of chefs and restaurateurs hope to pull Cambodian cuisine out of the shadows of the Khmer Rouge.
Key among them are Phnom Penh chef and restaurateur Luu Meng, and French chef Joannès Rivière at Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap.
Raised in a refugee camp on the Cambodian/Vietnam border and trained as a chef in Thailand, Meng is a self-made man: He now owns or has a stake in more than 10 restaurants in Phnom Penh (and has cooked for international dignitaries abroad). However, it's his first restaurant, Malis, where he made his name.
Open for more than six years, Malis has pushed the boundaries of Khmer cuisine, taking traditional recipes and giving them a contemporary spin. A modern rendition of banana flower salad with pork and clams in hot basil, a Khmer classic, has consistently been a hit with Khmer people and international visitors alike.
But it hasn't been smooth sailing for Meng. It took a few years to get it right for the local crowd: If he ventured too far from the original flavours, he alienated the local clientele.
"Now, it's about a 70-30 ratio – with the 70 going for the old taste and 30 for new taste," Meng says. "I can't change people's habits overnight."
His young chefs learn Western cuisine first, and then adapt techniques to Khmer cuisine.
"In Malis, I always get one of my crew asking me, 'Bong [boss] can I try this and try that?' We try them out and these dishes usually show up on the specials for the week."
In Siem Reap, Rivière has spent years studying Cambodian cuisine and believes it should be taken in its own right. Rivière was raised in the Loire Valley in France under the tutelage of a father who grew and supplied vegetables to the Michelin-starred restaurant La Maison Troisgros. He then worked in Nantucket and Philadelphia before accepting a volunteer position teaching cooking at a hotel school in Siem Reap. (He ended up writing the first Cambodian cookbook published internationally in both English and French before taking the helm at Hotel de la Paix's Meric restaurant in Siem Reap.)
"Cambodian cuisine is simple to prepare and cook, but is tasty, healthy and interesting," he says. In April 2011 Rivière opened Cuisine Wat Damnak and his dishes have been in hot demand. His ever-changing menu uses contemporary techniques adapted to the Khmer palate. Every week, a new menu incorporates seasonal fish, vegetables and fruit, and the chef uses hand-picked wild ingredients whenever possible.
Just two of the items on this week's tasting menu: marinated maam with pineapple and pork shank confit, herbs, flowers and local crudites; steamed dark chocolate cake with pandan custard and rice praline.
Now that it has received a shout-out from Travel + Leisure Asia (among others) as one of the hottest restaurants in the region, expect to see even more patrons lining up for Rivière's interpretation of Khmer cuisine.