In the bustling heart of Phnom Penh, the richly diverse flavours of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities are being simmered to life. This gastronomic revelation springs from the age-old traditions and distinct eating habits of the Kreung community, an ethnic minority group.
These unique flavours are now reaching the masses, courtesy of a trailblazing Kreung woman, Lat Sok Em.
Sok Em, a Ratanakkiri province native, has garnered attention for a certain hearty dish known as ‘Chanang beef’ soup. Packed with tender beef, a hint of chilli heat, aromatic vegetables and noodles, it is served in a generous bowl and is a key draw at her thriving restaurant.
Establishing her eatery in Phnom Penh’s Camko City area, Sok Em started her gastronomic venture in 2019 with ‘Chanang Indigenous Online’, a modest family business selling ethnic food online. Today, her restaurant serves as a beacon of Kreung traditions.
“I intend to preserve the traditional food of the Kreung people through this restaurant,” Sok Em shared.
‘Chanang’ is the titular soup, savoured by various ethnic groups. Her dream is to promote these indigenous delights across Cambodia and bring the rural flavours of ethnic minorities to the forefront.
“The restaurant was born out of the pain of discrimination. With hardly any indigenous food vendors around, I wanted to introduce our flavours and compete with foreign imports while capitalising on the untapped potential of traditional food,” she said.
Her staff of three are all ethnic minorities. The menu offers variations of Chanang in beef, pork, and vegetables priced between 10,000 to 12,000 riel. Surprisingly, the support comes more from the larger Cambodian population than the minority community, with only 10-15 ethnic students visiting per month.
Sok Em elaborated that Chanang incorporates Senna occidentalis, commonly known as coffeeweed, leaves, bamboo shoots, baby corn, vegetables, and other ingredients. A real taste of the indigenous countryside.
Choeun Sreymom, president of the Cambodian Indigenous Women’s Working Group (CIWWG), commented on the rarity of ethnic minority restaurants in comparison to their Cambodian counterparts. She attributed this to certain prerequisites of skill, location, and a personal identity deeply rooted in ethnic minority culture.
“Food embodies the identity of people. Among indigenous women, only two or three have initiated their own businesses. Sok Em’s popularity soared when she participated in food competitions with state institutions and partner organisations. The traditional ‘Chanang’ is a Kreung indigenous recipe, passed down from our ancestors in Ratanakkiri province,” Sreymom noted.
Regarding the discrimination faced by minority communities, Sreymom highlighted that while challenges exist, ethnic students persevere and persist with their studies.
“While awareness and understanding about ethnic minority groups increases, there is still a knowledge gap among some individuals. But, minority people are becoming more assertive and proud of their identity,” she said.