When Tong Heng’s mother passed away, so distraught was the young man from Preah Sihanouk province that he decided to drop out of school, leave his home and venture to Thailand to work in a restaurant.
“I didn’t get to study much and I felt a loss of warmth after losing my mother. Not caring about life much, I just made a quick decision to start a new life somewhere else in different country,” the now 25-year-old says.
Just one of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers living in Thailand, Tong worked diligently in a small restaurant in Bangkok where he routinely saw many Cambodian tourists flocking in groups to savour the hot spicy taste of Thai cuisine.
Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism & Sports reported that last year 882,000 Cambodian tourists visited Thailand, as the country has become a food and shopping paradise for many from the Kingdom.
Tong noticed Thai food’s general popularity among Cambodian tourists, and it was one dish in particular that caught his eye as a firm favourite – green papaya salad, known as Som Tam in Thai.
During his four-year stay in the Thai capital Bangkok, he made a conscious effort to learn how to prepare Thai food by observing the chefs working in his restaurant, dreaming of one day saving enough money to open his own Thai eatery in his home country.
Eight months ago, his dream became a reality as Tong saved enough money to open a small eatery in the capital’s Russian Market area.
“First I could not afford to rent a house to open a restaurant. I only paid a small fee to put up my cart and low tables along the street back then. Because there were too many customers and there were not enough seats, I decided to take risk and rent a house to upgrade my restaurant business providing more proper seats,” he said.
Tong wanted to serve the hot, rich and aromatic food he enjoyed in his years abroad in Thailand, deciding his restaurant’s speciality dish would be the green papaya salad that he and so many other Cambodians love so much.
He named the restaurant Tong Tong Bok Etlahae (“pounding non-stop” in Khmer) in honour of its signature dish.
Standing behind the counter of his restaurant filled with baskets of red chillies, limes, salty crab and a big mortar and pestle, Tong personally pounds the ingredients together with shredded green papaya before serving it to the hungry diners.
“Through my experience, I see many Cambodian people like Bok Lahong [Som Tam], but I could not see any restaurants in Phnom Penh that have the authentic taste from Thailand."
“I decided to grab an opportunity to use my kitchen skills in making green papaya salad and present this taste to Cambodia,” the young chef told The Post.
Thought to originate in Laos, but with many variations across Asean countries, Thai green papaya salad was listed among the world’s 50 best dishes by CNN Travel in 2017, receiving 35,000 readers’ votes.
Besides Som Tam, Tong’s restaurant also serves Bok Mi (spicy noodle salad) and Bok Ngeav (spicy clam salad). Prices range from 5,000 to 20,000 riel ($1.25 to $5).
“For office workers, they usually order cocktails to drink along with the food and chit-chat with friends to release the stress of work,” Tong says, wearing a straw hat wrapped in the traditional Khmer krama scarf.
“The number of customers can confirm how good my Som Tam tastes and I’m so excited to open another branch soon.”
After running the restaurant for almost a year now, Tong has expanded his menu from snacks to lunch and dinner with great success.
Tong Tong Bok Etlahae is located on Street 456 in the east of Russian Market.