A clutch of restaurants run by young homegrown chefs is raising the profile of Siem Reap as a bona fide food destination—and preserving Cambodia’s culinary traditions in the process.
It may have been a French chef, Joannès Rivière, who put Cambodia on the culinary map in 2015 when his Siem Reap restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak became the first establishment in the country to land on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Today, however, it’s six young Cambodian talents who helm Siem Reap’s five most exciting restaurants. Hailing from humble backgrounds and sharing a fondness for their mothers’ cooking, they have been quietly developing their own distinctive approaches to local gastronomy that are elegant, inspired, inventive, and committed to the farmed and foraged ingredients they grew up with.
In a city better known for temple hopping (the ruins of Angkor are just up the road) than for eating, it’s a remarkable development, and one that puts the unadventurous Cambodian dining scene in Phnom Penh to shame. Diners certainly appear to be loving what this new generation of chefs is artfully arranging on their plates. I’m going to call it New Cambodian cuisine—and having lived in Siem Reap for the past five years, I can attest that its time has come. Here’s where to find it.
1. Mie Café
Sprinkled with miniature mauve star-fruit flowers and served in a shell-shaped ceramic dish on a bed of pebbles in a wooden box, my ceviche of raw Kampot scallops, young palm fruit, and seaweed is quite possibly Siem Reap’s prettiest dish of the moment. Marinated in virgin olive oil with a zest of lemongrass and galangal, a subtle kick of chili, and cooling broccoli ice cream, it tastes every bit as good as it looks. Next up on my five-course degustation is a tian of sweet, plump tiger prawns, creamy avocado from remote Rattanakiri, fresh mint, bitter leaves, wild rice paddy herbs, and yellow mustard flowers. It too is a beautiful dish, if a bit surreal, appearing to sprout from the black plate on which it’s served.
While these first two courses could be described as Cambodian-European fusion—broccoli is a culinary relic of French-colonial times; the olive oil is unabashedly Italian—the one that follows couldn’t be anything but pure Cambodian. Served in a freshly cracked coconut, it’s a light take on a pungent traditional dish called prahok k’tis. The main ingredients are Cambodia’s beloved prahok (fermented fish), creamy coconut milk, minced pork, and tart roasted pea eggplants, to which the chef has judiciously added fresh prawns, slivers of wing beans and cucumber, and—with even more restraint—kaffir lime zest, sesbania flowers, water hyacinth buds, and bitter leaf for extra bite.
I’m lunching at 34-year-old chef Pola Siv’s Mie Café, which isn’t a café at all, but rather the most sophisticated of Siem Reap’s New Cambodian restaurants. Come sunset, when the lights that illuminate the wooden exterior of the traditional Khmer house are switched on, and waiters smooth creases from the white-linen tablecloths, the place takes on the elegance of a fine-dining establishment.
Mie means “noodle,” and it was breakfast noodles that Siv was selling—along with sandwiches and salads for lunch—when he opened the eatery with just five tables in 2012. That first incarnation was only meant to earn him a living while he used his savings from cheffing in hotel kitchens in Bahrain and the Cayman Islands to remodel the house into the restaurant it is today. No stranger to hard work, Siv put himself through culinary school in Switzerland before training at Domaine de Châteauvieux, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Geneva countryside. “It was the hardest job of my life and I enjoyed it so much,” he recalls. “But as the dishes were coming out, all I could think of was how I could replace some ingredients with Cambodian ingredients.”
Now outfitted with polished concrete floors, quirky vegetable-grater lamps, and a more romantic upstairs dining room that opens onto a breezy veranda, Mie has retained its traditional essence—just like the food. Apart from the olive oil, tuna, and beef, all the ingredients on the menu are local, from the seaweed and scallops that travel overnight from the southern Cambodian coast, to the mustard flowers that Siv grows at his own small farm. He also uses prahok, palm sugar, and sticky rice crisps made by his mother, whom he cites as his biggest inspiration.
“I love her cooking. Mum’s best dish is her samlor proheur, a soup made with bamboo shoots, ant eggs, leaves foraged from the forest, and fish marinated in homemade kroeung.” Kroeung is a fragrant herb-and-spice paste of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, turmeric, garlic, and shallots that is the basis for many Cambodian dishes.
“You can’t find these flavor combinations anywhere else,” Siv tells me excitedly. “Since Switzerland, I’ve wanted to create the Cambodian food I am now making. My goal today is to keep doing more of this, and to inspire the next generation of chefs.”
2. Mahob Khmer
Just down the dusty road from Mie Café, about a block from the Siem Reap River, is Mahob Khmer, set in another handsomely refurbished traditional wooden home. Red Chinese lanterns swing from the trellis at the entrance, while upturned woks serve as lampshades to the lights that guide guests along the path to an airy dining room.
Cambodians have cooked with flowers since long before it was fashionable—deep-fried frangipani blossoms have been eaten here for centuries—and today, 33-year-old chef-owner Sothea Seng pan-fries pumpkin blossoms stuffed with amok bangkea (a firm steamed prawn mousse) and serves them with a chili-plum sauce. He also makes a dainty ceviche salad of sweet freshwater shrimp tossed with crispy wing beans and bitter flowers, offset by a spicy, sweet, and sour chili-lemongrass dressing. As for my main course, it’s as dramatic-looking as it is delicious: caramelized fillets of river fish slow-braised in palm sugar, ginger, garlic, star anise, and lemongrass and served on a bed of sautéed lotus roots and straw mush- rooms garnished with young tamarind leaves.
Mahob simply means “food” in Khmer, and Seng’s style of New Cambodian cuisine was inspired by the food he ate as a child growing up in Kampong Cham, some 250 kilometers southeast of Siem Reap. “I wanted to offer traditional Cambodian food with a modern presentation,” he explains. “Old countryside meets the city; new techniques enhancing old flavors. It’s all about quality ingredients, textures, and originality. But I don’t create anything that’s far away from Cambodian tradition.”
The son of farmers, Seng started cooking at age 10, helping his mother to prepare rice and simple dishes like fermented-fish omelets. As they never knew what they’d have to eat the next day, his mother also taught him how to preserve and pickle vegetables. He now has a small organic garden where he grows produce for his restaurant at Issan Lodge, a beautiful collection of Khmer houses that he built in a village on the edge of Siem Reap. He also offers cooking classes at the palm-fringed property.
Unlike the other chefs in this story, Seng didn’t train at a hospitality school or culinary academy. He was 15 when he landed his first restaurant job as a waiter, and a year later he found himself as a kitchen hand at Siem Reap’s Sofitel Angkor resort, a position that launched an eight-year career with luxury hotels in places as far-flung as Dubai and the Cayman Islands.
At Mahob Khmer, Seng relies on typical Cambodian produce such as palm sugar, fish sauce, coconuts, and lemongrass. But he also loves using more unusual ingredients from the countryside—edible flowers, say, or red ants and tarantulas. He seeks inspiration on his travels around the country, recently visiting the northeastern province of Stung Trey to learn how to make a sour fish soup. Above all, he’s eager to preserve Cambodia’s culinary heritage.
“The countryside is changing. Villages are getting electricity and turning into towns. I’m worried about the loss of local ingredients in the future,” Seng says. “So many restaurants in Siem Reap advertise that they serve Cambodian food, but the flavors are toned down to suit foreigners and they have things like tom yum goong on the menu. This is why I want to focus on making real Cambodian cuisine.”
Set on a quiet stretch of the Siem Reap River, Trorkuon is the elegant restaurant at the year-old Jaya House River Park hotel. Diners are greeted by swinging tables and seats with black-and-white striped cushions, as well as by portraits of Cambodian pop icons Pan Ron, Sinn Sisamouth, and Ros Sereysothea, who were part of the country’s thriving music scene in the 1960s. Yet the food here, by 28-year-old chef Tim Pheak, is anything but nostalgic.
Pheak was born in the countryside of Takeo, near Phnom Penh, and was just five when his father abandoned the family. To support herself and her children, his mother moved to the capital and opened a market stall selling Cambodia’s favorite breakfast dish, nom banh chok: fermented rice noodles slathered in a fish-curry soup and served with a mountain of fresh herbs and leaves. During school holidays, Pheak would join her in Phnom Penh to help with chopping greens and washing dishes. But times were hard. They slept in the market overnight, and he didn’t feel safe. It was there that he was found by an NGO that, with his mother’s blessing, enrolled him in a hospitality training school in Siem Reap.
Pheak’s career since graduating would be the dream of many chefs. He landed his first job at the Sofitel Angkor and later found employment at Song Saa Private Island, one of Cambodia’s most exclusive resorts. Consulting work in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives followed, as did a stint aboard the luxurious Aqua Mekong boat, which plies its namesake river between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Though I rarely feel the need to eat in a hotel restaurant in Siem Reap, I make an exception for Pheak’s refined style of cooking. It’s the reason I find myself munching into piping-hot, French-style savory bread rolls before a tasting menu of contemporary Cambodian food. They come in a rainbow of colors and flavors—the red rolls are made with dragonfruit, the purple from taro, the yellow from turmeric. That may sound gimmicky, but they’re absolutely scrumptious.
The prettiest dish on Pheak’s five-course tasting menu is his delicate take on a traditional Cambodian stir-fry of beef and red ants. While it still tastes authentic, it’s even more elegant to look at, strewn with whatever edible flowers are in season, and it melts in your mouth, Cambodia’s tough local beef (cows here aren’t sent for slaughter until they can no longer work the fields) having been replaced by premium Australian meat.
Aside from imported protein and some condiments from elsewhere in the region, everything in the kitchen is local. “It must be Cambodian for me. All I’m changing is the presentation and maybe an ingredient or two, but it’s Cambodian,” the chef insists. “Most people know Thai food, but they don’t know ours, so I have to promote it. No way can we lose our Cambodian culinary heritage.”
4. Pou Restaurant
Siem Reap’s most attention-grabbing Cambodian cuisine these days is surprisingly its most traditional, coming out of the very rustic upstairs kitchen of Pou Restaurant, which occupies an unrenovated wooden house on a dusty street opposite the historic Wat Damnak Pagoda. Pou translates as “uncle” in Cambodia, where it is customary to use the local equivalents of “father,” “brother,” or “sister” in restaurant names to create a sense of hospitality and familiarity, in the same way Cambodians call older women “aunty.” But while Pou has a casual feel underscored by mismatched secondhand furniture and hand-written blackboard menus, its name is an unlikely one for a restaurant helmed by a chef who, at 28, hardly seems old enough to be anyone’s uncle.
On my recent visit, Mork Mengly is wearing the brown T-shirt that serves as Pou’s staff uniform, barbecuing chicken over coals on the same sort of clay brazier his ancestors have used for 2,000 years. He whooshes away a few flies lured in by the enticing aromas as he plates up on a hefty wooden table of the kind his father and uncles would drink beer around after a day in the rice fields.
On paper, Mengly is the least experienced of Siem Reap’s crop of New Cambodian chefs. He graduated from hospitality school in 2011 and only started to cook in 2013, making burgers and pasta in a popular expat bar before progressing to Mediterranean food at a local café. After a stint as head chef at NGO training restaurant Spoons, he moved on again, opening Pou a year ago.
The reason for Mengly’s rapid success is immediately obvious when you lay eyes on his vibrant plates with their grids and licks of color and abundance of edible flowers. But for all their visual appeal and creativity, what he is dishing up is very traditional. His take on a teuk kroeung, a rich, fishy, curry-like sauce made from red kroeung paste and mango, is more attractive than any I’ve seen whipped up by an aunty, with a small grilled fish served separately on the side, leaves and flowers arranged prettily around a mound of fermented rice noodles, and dots of chili oil adding a modern touch. But close my eyes and I’m tasting a classic teuk kroeung—the chef later divulges that he uses his grandmother’s recipe.
Mengly grew up in Siem Reap, but on his school holidays his mother sent him to the market town of Dam Dek where he spent time cooking with his grandma. “We made all kinds of strange things like banana pickle with fish—she was always making lots of pickles,” Mengly tells me. Back home, he’d help his mother in the kitchen, forage for wild leaves, and go fishing with his dad. It’s that food from the countryside that is his source of inspiration today.
“All I am doing is presenting local ingredients that people don’t normally see—like beehive and red ants—in new ways with beautiful plating. If people travel here to taste real Cambodian food, I want to be sure that’s what they’re served.”
Chefs Pol Kimsan, 34, and Sok Kimsan, 32, share the same inspirations and desires as their male counterparts, yet their European-looking cuisine and modish restaurant couldn’t be more different.
Embassy comes as a surprise to diners who seek it out. Firstly, it’s secreted away in the back of a tourist complex that is home to a Hard Rock Cafe franchise. Secondly, the traditional-style two-story building has a modern interior highlighted by orange accents, sleek modernist chairs, and a central chandelier that illuminates the room. The decor feels at odds with the cuisine, which its chefs describe as “100 percent Cambodian,” despite its frequent labeling as Cambodian-European fusion.
But what really makes Embassy stand out is the fact that it’s managed by an all-female team of warm, friendly women who are as confident waiting tables as they are in the kitchen. With its outstanding service and decent wine list, this could also be the closest thing Siem Reap has to a proper fine-dining restaurant. Like Mie Café, Embassy is full most nights and it’s next to impossible to get a weekend dinner reservation.
Kampot-born Pol and Siem Reap-raised Sok—despite the shared surname, they are not related—oversee 10 restaurants as executive chefs of the city’s largest restaurant group, but Embassy is their baby. They too grew up helping their mothers from a young age. A very pregnant (with her second child) Sok tells me how she started cooking before she turned 11, making food for the 10 people in their household as well as planting vegetables and foraging, something she still does on her way to work. As for Pol, her mother was the village cook, as was her grandmother and great-grandmother before her. Responsible for catering Buddhist ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, it’s a position long respected in Cambodian society.
Sok says she spent two years planning the concept for Embassy, a labor of love that involved thumbing through old Khmer cook books, consulting family and friends across the country, and researching ingredients. The result: a repertoire of some 90 recipes and monthly, seven-course degustation menus of elegant modern Cambodian dishes that change according to the season. These might include a duck-egg omelet with spicy ground beef and red-ant eggs, grilled frog stuffed with minced pork belly and marinated in curry paste, or palm-fruit sour soup cooked in lemongrass paste with pork rib and tamarind juice—a refined version of a traditional home-style broth that is rustic, hearty, and comforting.
“I only want to cook Cambodian food,” Sok tells me as we chat in a new dining room, added to accommodate the increasing number of bookings they’re receiving each night. Her dream? “To have a restaurant that everybody who comes to Siem Reap wants to go to,” she grins.
King’s Road Angkor Village; 855/78-940-943.
No. 137, Traing Village; 855-63/966-986.
No. 85, Phum Treng Khum Slorgram; 855/12-791-371.
Phum Wat Damnak; 855/96-971-8088.
Jaya House River Park, River Rd., Treang Village; 855-63/962- 555.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Cambodia’s New Crop”).