Num banh chok is a traditional fish curry with fermented rice noodles, prahok fish paste, kroeung paste, flowering plants and seasonal vegetables that is arguably a strong contender for “national dish” status in Cambodia and typically served for breakfast or eaten as an afternoon snack.
Now you can enjoy its colourful assortment of tropical vegetables flavoured with just a hint of prahok in the globally beloved form of pizza, thanks to some innovative culinary fusion from the kitchen of Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City-based eatery Pizza 4P's.
The yellow sauce on the num banh chok pizza – used in place of the usual red tomato sauce – takes its inspiration from kroeung, the yellow herb and spice paste widely used in Cambodian cooking.
The pizza also makes use of the flowering plants and freshwater fish typically found in num banh chok, including flavourful layers of water celery, basil, water mimosa, banana blossoms, water hyacinths and sesbania flowers.
All of those ingredients are combined with crunchy peanuts and a creamy in-house produced cheese that brings a unique harmony to their fusion-style pizza, which they serve up daily at Riverside’s Preah Sisowath Square.
Kayuza Kubota, the country director of Pizza 4P's Cambodia, says that the idea for the num banh chok pizza was in development long before the opening of their restaurant about one year ago.
“I asked my Khmer friends – what are the best traditional comfort foods eaten by Cambodians? And from several options we choose num banh chok to turn into a pizza. We then spent around two months taste-testing our recipe and adjusting the ingredients,” Kubota tells The Post.
“Using a pizza crust as the base instead of noodles but still including the yellow kroeung, prahok, freshwater fish, coconut milk, Cambodian herbs and plants like water hyacinth are what will remind people of the traditional dish, but then we also add things like our in-house made mozzarella cheese,” he said.
However, the challenge was finding the right balance between the traditional Cambodian ingredients and expectations about how pizzas are made.
They were helped along by the fact that – even though it is an iconic western dish that originated in Italy – pizza is now found everywhere and in a multitude of varieties, making it a perfect vehicle for fusion experiments like Pizza 4P’s offerings.
“Out of respect for Cambodian culture, we didn’t want to change the original taste and ingredients too much, but we did need to think in terms of matching those together with pizza dough and cheese,” Kubota says.
“For example, prahok has a very strong taste that those who aren’t familiar with it have to adapt to first, but we boil it down a little to mellow it some before we use it in the pizza sauce and this small adjustment helps a lot,” he says.
Kubota also notes that Pizza 4P's is dedicated to using local suppliers to the greatest extent possible and the pizza crust is made with eggs that are sourced from a farm that raises traditional free range chickens in rural Siem Reap .
“Our relationship with our suppliers is not just about using the best ingredients to make a superior product, we also have a socially responsible business philosophy where we want our projects to work in a sustainable circle and we also try to promote the zero-waste concept,” he says.
“We reuse our eggshells by crushing them into a powder that is mixed with moringa leaves to feed the chickens that produce those highly nutritious eggs that we use in our crusts and pastas at our restaurants. That is what is meant by a sustainable circle and it also results in serving good quality food to our customers,” says Kubota.
While promoting environmental awareness, sustainability and local ingredients, Kubota noted that responsible sourcing of ingredients is a very important part of any sustainability drive.
“Because the choices we make directly affect the environment, our society and other communities, transparency is key. We are very open about which of our ingredients are locally sourced and every year we issue a sustainability report but, unfortunately, our Cambodia sourcing numbers are very low.
“We keep looking for corporate farms and producers in Cambodia and we are making progress step-by-step. This Khmer pizza has helped increase our local sourcing and we’re considering other pizza-versions of Cambodian dishes, but we really want to stick with the zero-waste concept with our menu,” he says.
Num banh chok pizza went on sale in Cambodia on May 25 and at Pizza 4P’s Vietnam location one week later. It’s doing well in both countries, according to Kubota.
“We’ve gotten overall positive feedback, not only on the taste and flavour but also the idea that Khmer cuisine can be used in collaboration with other kinds of foods like this,” he says.
The pizzas cost $7.80 (without VAT) for an entire 29cm pizza. Customers can also choose to do a “half and half” style pizza with different options on each side.
“We’ve already sold over 100 full-size num banh chok pizzas in the past week,so I think we can safely say it’s a big hit so far,” Kubota says.
When it comes to promoting Khmer cuisine, the Ministry of Tourism has always stressed the importance of local foods in attracting tourists.
The launch of the num banh chok pizza was welcomed by Kim Sereiroath, director of the Ministry of Tourism’s industry department, who said it sounds like a great way to promote local foods and locally farmed ingredients.
“I personally think that promoting Khmer food locally and internationally will contribute greatly to the promotion of tourism generally and I think it’s a great idea as long as the maker of the pizza does things like preserve the original name, refers back to traditional recipes and knows the history of the dish.
“The important thing is that consumers are aware that this pizza is based on the Khmer num banh chok ingredients, because that helps us to promote our cultural identity and heritage through traditional foods. Overall, I think that this can help to promote our foods by making them more familiar to tourists or foreigners, so it’s a positive thing,” Sereiroath said.