Cambodian cuisine is much misunderstood. Often confused with the hot and spicy offerings from its neighbors, Khmer cooking is delightfully subtle and different. Whilst drawing on certain features of its neighbors, the cuisine has also adopted elements of other more distant cuisines in India and China. The result is an unbridled freshness and harmonious elegance emphasising understated combinations of diverse herbs and spices.
While considered one of the worlds oldest living cuisines, it is a fact that the local knowledge and wisdom of the cuisine barely survived the madness of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodian cuisine has used very unique Indochina spices with an influence from Indian spices. Today they use very fresh spices grown locally that leave the eater feeling very light and refreshed after the meal. In Cambodian cuisine a few other ingredients stand out. Unique rock salt and nice Kampot peppers as well as palm sugars which are very rich and have good flavors stand out. The unique local prahok, or fish preserved to make the flavors come out. In France they have almost unlimited types of cheese, and in Cambodia prahok fills a similar niche. It can be prepared in many ways, and the taste and texture is always different depending on how it is made.
Luu Meng is a Cambodian, born just before the Khmer Rouge came to power and lucky to survive, who can take a great deal of credit for the resurrection of the living Cambodian cuisine. As one of the countries highest profile master chefs, Luu Meng has been instrumental in rediscovering the flavors of the country. He has been to the fore of encouraging a new generation of farmers to cultivate the unique and special ingredients of Khmer cuisine as well as facilitating the rise of a new cooking class in the society. His training of young restaurant staff is legendary.
Relative to Luu Mengs spectacular contributions, it is somewhat disappointing to see the high profile of the various training restaurants throughout Cambodia. It is quite laughable to see the plethora of “training” restaurants ranked at the top of most restaurant and food ranking websites for Cambodia, whilst the serious and original institutions such as Luu Mengs, struggles for recognition. The reality is that the sympathy industry is alive and strong in Cambodia despite the considerable passage of time since the killing fields. Some of the flakiness of the sympathy industry has been recognised in the recent exposure of the Cambodian child minding centers represented as orphanages to certain international travelers, but the bona fides of the training restaurants remains unchallenged.
There is certainly much good work done in many Cambodian orphanages and training restaurants, but the tourist refrain after an evening meal at a prominent Phnom Penh training restaurant that ….
“our soul was replenished, despite the food” does say a lot. There are many other comments that yield insight on the distortion of the training restaurant; the ambiance lovely and we really enjoyed the trainees; an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile enterprise; So nice to see that the project is working so well and to support it for one night; The restaurant, is well regarded as a training restaurant for former street children; Eating here is a great way to support disadvantaged children; … all the sweeter for the trainees; this is a great organization to support; I think it is always great to support a good cause; a great vibe; I always enjoy dining at places that are established to help provide skill training; what you are doing is just something good for people who weren’t lucky as you are.
At the same time other not so supportive comments …
they are “training” street kids in culinary and service skills but do they really need to charge such high prices to other restaurants; Training or no training this place was the pitts!” This place was rubbish from start to finish; but had to leave as the staff play the “Look! it’s a live tarantula!” joke – and had the girl at the next table in tears. Too stressful – we went elsewhere; nothing particularly special. More interesting were the live ones that the staff; Lets face it the reason for this restaurant being number 4 in PP is we all like the concept and patrons are 90% tourists. The concept of employing and training young people is great. Food was lacking quality. The meat was tough, chewy and not edible. The crispy rice noodle dish was good but lacked flavour all together, with spring rolls being a mushy mess. Cost was a bit expensive for the food quality itself but with the good concept in mind we did not mind at all; Dining for a cause!; Too many tourists for my liking and for the experience to be personal. The food was over priced and dull. If this wasn’t a charity it wouldn’t get all the press it does. Felt a little like a tourist trap Just another souvenir shop”Bad service, they forgot to make my food” The food was very boring and sub standard; I understand that Cambodia is a developing country and that this cafe is for a great cause but I came to eat in a great restaurant, this was the opposite; I love the reasons for the restaurant – to train street kids and give them a profession. The service is good and the food is ok; I found the food just ok and it was quite expensive. There is lots of great food in Cambodia, but we didn’t find it … here; food was horrible, service poor, and tips obligatory. “You are helping country side people; But especially food, sick, with a pitiful curry, a salad for prisoners, and a really short and fake menu who only wants to try to find customers to feel guilty because they are having a strange dinner in … a training restaurant …, a NGO who is in the reality a restaurant who want to make profit with amateurs employees. And amateur customers, for sure. Our service was nothing outstanding, and the food was mediocre;
So the bottom line for visiting a “training” restaurant in Cambodia … be prepared to be charitable for not particularly original, interesting or innovative food, a good deal of which might not be Khmer at all (ie that is pay way over the price). And be patient with all the poor street kids who are training for a better life. All good if you enjoy superficiality and are happy being condescending. The bottom line for the good food traveler .. are you looking for food for the stomach or the heart?
Alternatively, the well meaning traveler could contribute to Médecins Sans Frontières or some serious and transparent charity, and go searching for some original and spectacular Khmer cuisine.
Ignoring, the various traveler restaurant rankings, the visitor to Cambodia with serious cuisine intent could do worse than begin the voyage to Cambodia with a visit to one of the more original restaurants in Cambodia. The food quality, the service and the economic impact on employment in the local economy might be better and more sustained.
While Cambodia is known to be a relatively cheap travel spot many travelers might be fooled into a comment such s … “reasonable local cuisine but a little more expensive than we were anticipating”. In fact moving along from the cheap eats cities such as Phnom Penh have some spectacular restaurants which provide food, service and an atmosphere comparable with any of the great cities of the world, and at bargain basement prices.
For a choice of fabulous Cambodian cuisine or just some great international cooking it is hard to go past Le Royal restaurant at Raffles Hotel Phnom Penh. This amazing restaurant set in fabulous décor is overseen by Michelin hatted Chef Steve Van Remoortel. The menu and prices look to good to be true even by world standards, why would anyone visiting Phnom Penh eat anywhere else, the food is delicious and the wallet impact is slight? For variety the adventurous traveler could travel a short distance across town and find Malis, Luu Mengs famed Khmer headquarters. Lunch is brilliant here in a classy restaurant setting which incorporates French elements into traditional Khmer cuisine. They don’t change the taste of the food, they change the presentation. The objective at Malis is living Cambodian cuisine – not fusion or mixing but enhancing the flavour of Khmer food through the presentation and the dining experience. They use raw ingredients to produce the Khmer cuisine, but present it based on the French lifestyle and way of dining.
And after a light lunch at Malis one could venture a little further down the road to Topaz, the natural extension of Mengs French cooking philosophy. Topaz would have to be one of the best value French style restaurants on the planet. Fresh produce is air freighted directly from Paris and the amazing French cellar comes without all the European taxes and levies. What a wonderful place to be. And the cuisine is outstanding, second to none.
In a fantasy world it would be hard to go past lunch at Malis with dinner at Topaz with maybe a bit of le Royal thrown in for good measure. On the other hand one could get a copy of Meng’s co edited book Cambodia’s Top Tables and spend the next six months in paradise, and not a training restaurant in sight.