Num kruok – a Khmer cake made from flour dough and spring onion (Allium fistulosum) – is a popular snack with the Cambodian people as it goes well with sweet and sour fish sauce.
At Pou Restaurant on Wat Bo street in Siem Reap town, one chef uses additional ingredients like beetroot and preserved daikon radishes mixed with red sugar and rumdeng or galangal to create a taste similar to sweet and sour fish sauce, but it is even better and it has beautiful purple highlights in its colouring.
These are the kind of creative ideas that are drawing local and international guests to Pou Restaurant who enjoy the beauty of a dish as much as they do its taste.
“This creative sauce tastes like sweet and sour fish sauce, but it is not actually that sauce. Although the methods are different, its taste still embodies the taste of sweet and sour fish sauce,” said Chuong Tep, one of the two young chefs at the restaurant.
In addition to cooking Khmer food for local and international patrons, Tep, who was born in Siem Reap, said that she also runs the classes at the restaurant that teach the guests how to cook Khmer food.
Before starting the cooking class, she usually brings the guests to the market to buy vegetables, fish and meat, and then they start practicing together by cooking three dishes like pomelo, shrimp and pork salad, fish amok and a ginger dessert with palm sugar.
If they follow the easy recipes presented to them by the 24-year-old chef, each visitor will taste Khmer cuisine made by their own hands.
“Each of them spends $30 on shopping, cooking and learning to cook and then they get to eat their own food too,” Tep told The Post.
The chef claimed that the number of visitors to the restaurant in search of Khmer cuisine has increased significantly, although the total number of tourists is not as large as it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said that for a while after Covid-19, there were many guests coming to learn how to cook Khmer food every day, including European chefs who wanted to understand how to make Khmer food.
“Most foreign guests appreciate the delicious Khmer food and are interested in learning to cook for themselves,” said Tep, who graduated from Paul Dubrule Hotel and Tourism (EHL).
In addition to the dishes mentioned, the chef of Pou Restaurant said that she also receives requests from guests to teach them other Khmer dishes such as samlar kako, a traditional Cambodian soup dish.
She said that all visitors like the ginger dessert mixed with palm sugar juice, which is made by frying sugar with ginger – creating a very pleasant aroma – before it is added to milk, cream and some other ingredients.
In the kitchen, the restaurant is busy cooking for the tourists and another chef Chom Channa said that the most ordered dish by guests is Khmer chicken curry.
The 24-year-old said that there are two types of Khmer chicken curry served here, including the traditional curry or red curry and a more creative curry recipe mixing with some added ingredients and with the chicken grilled separately.
“We cook thick curry mixed with mashed potatoes and fried chicken,” said Channa, who worked in Phnom Penh for a while and then returned to work in Chreav commune in Siem Reap .
The two female chefs work together to promote Khmer cuisine to international tourists through training and creativity to suit the popular tastes of the Western visitors.
Both were trained at and graduated from EHL in early 2018 and started working at the restaurant at the end of the same year.
Chef Channa studied at the school for two years, the first year learning the skills of baking and the second year learning the skills of general cuisine. The young woman took a break from the restaurant during the pandemic to study baking skills in Phnom Penh before returning to Siem Reap during the lockdown of the capital.
After graduating from EHL, she started her first job at Pou Restaurant, but amid the pandemic she also ran a small coffee stall before returning full time in early 2022.
“Apart from internships at hotels and restaurants, my full-time job has always been at this same restaurant,” Tep told The Post.
“These creative dishes need to be attractive and to be mixed with some creative ingredients, but that does not mean that foreign tourists do not like pure Khmer food. But the restaurant wants to offer a wide range of options to the guests as some of them are allergic to some common Khmer ingredients,” said the chef from Svay Thom market in Prasat Bakong district of Siem Reap.
Mork Mengly, founder of Pou Restaurant, said that the restaurant was reborn in March 2022 on Wat Bo street and is now focused on promoting modern Khmer cuisine and creative foods.
He said he has set up a new branch under the name Tompea Restaurant for clients wishing to dine on a five-to-seven-dish set meal with prices ranging from $36 to $88 per person.
“They are chefs who can really cook and we want to promote the work of these young chefs to be recognised internationally, as well as wanting the local customers enjoy the quality of the local food aesthetically,” Mengly said in praise of the young women working as his chefs.
“We have a cooking class for international tourists to learn how to cook in a luxurious way. Teaching to the international tourists is divided into two types including teaching at the restaurant how to cook pomelo, shrimp and pork salads and Khmer fish sauce, and another class where we teach how to make fish amok and how to cut and make the box for the food,” Mengly said.
The menu at the restaurant includes ice cream, trapae (a paste dessert of fermented rice) with crispy Khmer crackers, kebab beef with pickles, pomelo, shrimp and pork salads, beef lok lak, num kruok and other foods which are all Khmer foods but have modern plating or twists.
He said that at the height of the pandemic, the restaurant’s collaborations with partners were all severed, splitting their respective marketing plans up as they were transformed from restaurants to cafes and from serving foreign tourists to locals.
During that time, Mengly taught and disseminated knowledge about hygienic foods with the German international development agency GIZ through its Multisectoral Food and Nutrition Security (MUSEFO) Project.
“I am a local chef, teaching on flavor and nutrition and teaching them how to cook better with better taste and do it safely,” he said.
With a desire to promote Khmer food on the international stage, Tep added that although the country is modern and enjoys access to many of the world’s most popular cuisines, she still wants to promote Khmer cuisine.
“I even heard that some Europeans love Khmer food so much that some of them want to open a Khmer restaurant in Switzerland and take us to be their chefs there,” she said.