Inside the kitchen of a small and cosy restaurant in Fukuoka, a city of 1.5 million people on the northern shore of Japan’s southwestern Kyushu Island, a Cambodian woman busily prepares her native food for a crowd of enthusiastic, mostly Japanese, diners.
Wearing a chef’s apron and a traditional Khmer krama scarf as head wrap, Chhom Sros is the owner of “Cambodian’s Family Cuisine, Siem Reap”. An orphan from Siem Reap province’s Angkor Thom district, Sros moved from the temple town at the age of 14 to stay with an aunt in Phnom Penh. It was in the capital that she met her Japanese husband in 1998.
The 38 year old – mother of an 18-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son – told The Post: “I moved to Japan after I got married in 1998. I opened the ‘Cambodian’s Family Cuisine, Siem Reap’ just over eight years ago.”
After starting a new chapter with her husband in Japan, a country world renowned for its food, her Cambodian cuisine soon began winning the hearts of Japanese diners.
Samlor kokor, which literally translates as “stirring soup”, is the star among 27 dishes on her menu. The rich, nutritious dish is cooked using fish or chicken, with aubergine, green papaya, pumpkin, greens, pounded fried rice grains and spices.
“Samlor kokor and Khmer curry are among the top favourites with my customers, especially Cambodian people staying in Japan. Other popular dishes here are fried squid with Kampot green pepper, rice with curry soup and fried mixed vegetables,” she said.
But the typical Cambodian breakfast of steamed rice with pork is the top seller. Sros says Japanese people like the simple meal.
“For bay srop [steamed rice with pork], I do a little fusion with the dish, serving it with salad. I would say eight out of 10 Japanese customers order this dish,” Sros says.
As well as serving many delicious Khmer dishes, her humble restaurant proudly displays its Cambodian identity. The Kingdom’s flag hangs under dried sugar palm leaves. Riel notes in different colours and denominations are displayed in plastic wrap on the wall.
And her restaurant is probably the only one in Fukuoka serving large bottles of imported Angkor Beer.
“I’m very happy that Japanese people are interested in our Khmer food, including samlor kokor. They also like our Khmer curry,” Sros says proudly.
The restaurant owner, chef and sometimes waitress believes it is the authentic taste of her home country and high hygiene standards that are behind the success of her business.
“Because of this, in September, Japanese newspapers and TV channels came to do stories on my restaurant."
“It is an honour not just for myself but my country, because it helps promote Cambodian dishes,” the convivial restaurateur says, her face beaming.