My nine-month quest to learn how to cook Cambodian food hasn’t been an easy one. There are only a few decent cookbooks on the subject, and even they’re filled with contradictions, making it even harder to get to the bottom of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most overlooked cuisines.
You might have thought I’d lost a bet when I set out to do this, especially as I can only speak a few words of Khmer, or at least ones that are understood. But I really wanted to go somewhere that hasn’t been done to death. I’ve always loved Indian food, for instance, and haven’t been helped by the fact that there are a few very good Indian restaurants out here, when I should have been researching the local delicacies, but the world hardly needs another book or blog on Indian food.
But saying that, given that Cambodian cuisine was heavily influenced by the cooking of early Indian traders, and then much later by Cham Muslim, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrants and invaders, and then French imperialists, whose only legacy in this beautiful country seems to be the humble baguette, it’s impossible to know where one food starts and another ends.
Take ‘loc lac’ for instance (beef steak stir-fried in oyster sauce and ketchup). It’s easily the second most famous Cambodian dish after the repulsive unofficial national dish of amok. It’s on every menu, even in places that do actually serve proper traditional dishes. But it’s undoubtedly Vietnamese – even the name is Vietnamese.
And calling it ‘English loc lac’ with the courtesy of a fried egg on top is just ridiculous – and shows just how unconfident Cambodians are about their food, and how reluctantly they reveal the real, pongy, delicious stuff that they hide near the ruins at Angkor Wat.
Talk to one chef, and they’ll say one thing, talk to another and they’ll say something else. Some will point out how the Khmer Empire ruled Thailand for hundreds of years, and gave its food as much as it took, and that tom yam soup is actually Cambodian. While others claim amok is a Thai dish.
No-one seems to be in agreement about anything. And it isn’t helped by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to find traditional ethnic Khmer food in Cambodia, and even when you do, it’s stuffed full of MSG and drenched in horrible bottled sauces.
You can still find it in the countryside, passed from mother to daughter in homes and a few restaurants and street stalls, as I’ve written about in the past. But I knew my quest wouldn’t be complete without visiting Joannès Rivière (pic above) – a chef widely seen as one of the world’s leading experts on Cambodian cuisine.
The Frenchman, who worked as a food consultant for Rick Stein when he visited the country for one of his programmes, has been shining the path in the Cambodian culinary capital of Siem Reap for the past nine years. Chefs and food writers kept telling me that what he doesn’t know about Cambodian food can be written on a 100 riel note.
I was convinced Rivière was the man to talk to, even if he was only going to dispel a few of my theories, and even more so when celebrity chef Raymond Blanc heaped huge praise on him last month during a visit to Cuisine Wat Damnak.
“Oh mon Dieu, this man can cook, he is blessed!” Blanc wrote on his blog after trying his Cambodian tasting menu.
The menu certainly sounded interesting – an amuse bouche of green mango salad; fresh rice flake pancake with prawn, smoked fish and aubergine puree; pan-fried chlang (an eel-like fish from the nearby Tonle Sap lake) with crisp vegetables and hyacinth blossom; quail curry with pumpkin and long beans; and a sticky rice crème brûlée.
“Those moments are rare when you know that you are in the presence of a very gifted craftsman,” added Blanc. “Remember this name: Joannès Rivière.”
That was it – I had to meet the man. I caught a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and was about to give the chef a call when I got embroiled in a couple of news stories. Two weeks later, I rang and he told me to come round the next day.
I walked along the dusty, crater-filled side streets near Wat Damnak temple, a mile or so from town, and then spotted the restaurant’s blue logo. The place had been converted from a traditional Khmer house, with a large kitchen extension at the back, and was set in a beautiful garden.
Rivière emerged from the kitchen with fat beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. He gestured me to a seat flanked by herb pots and we shared two bottles of ice cold water as the midday sun beat down.
He was good company, and very self-effacing given his credentials. You only had to look at him to see he had cooking and restaurants in his blood. He grew up working in his family’s small restaurant in Roanne, in the Loire region of France, and then went to chef school for three years before working as a pastry chef in Nantucket and Philadelphia.
He then decided he needed a change of scene and moved to Cambodia, working as a volunteer for two years teaching impoverished kids cooking and hospitality skills at the French NGO-run Sala Bai Hotel School in Siem Reap.
But savings don’t last forever, however much Buddha’s on your side, and he spent the next five years as executive chef of one of the northern city’s most prestigious venues, Hotel de la Paix, launching its renowned Cambodian degustation menu. In April last year, during Cambodia’s hottest month, and at the beginning of the low season, he and his wife Carole opened Cuisine Wat Damnak “with the aim of serving delicious and imaginative Cambodian food to locals, expats and travellers alike”. They also had a baby.
“It wasn’t a very clever idea,” chuckles Rivière, rubbing his eyes. “I wouldn’t recommend to have a baby and open a restaurant at the same time. It’s extremely tiring! You finish work at midnight and then you have to wake up at 6am, and it’s like this every single day!”
It wasn’t the most auspicious start. Business was fairly slow, and then he was hit by last year’s severe flooding and had to close for two months. But the word slowly got round as foodie tourists and expats and rich Khmers from Phnom Penh flocked to see a Frenchman showcasing traditional Cambodian recipes using seasonal fish, fruit and vegetables that are nearly impossible to source.
“I wanted to open a restaurant like you would in France or England by focusing on the products, which is actually very rarely the case in Cambodia. So I base all the recipes on that. If I find a good fish then we change the menu, and put the fish on the menu,” he says.
ivière built up a network of local suppliers, getting freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap and pigs from farms near the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat. “The two good meats in Cambodia are fish and pork,” he explains. “If you can get Cambodian pork – because 70% of the pork here is imported from Vietnam, and is industrially farmed.”
The beautifully-white local pig meat is showcased in dishes like braised pork shank with star anis, caramelised palm sugar, fresh bamboo shoots, and crispy trotter. But it’s the freshwater fish he’s most proud of – a food that he says truly defines Cambodian cuisine.
“There are very, very good freshwater fish here. The Tonle Sap is actually the second biggest source of freshwater fish in the world after the Amazon, and because the ecosystem is so unique there is a variety of fish of all types.”
There are two fish on that day. Kay, which is originally from the Danube, but was introduced to Cambodia to help boost fish stocks. “They’re very, very bad in Europe – they taste like shit. But here they’re very good. They’re one of the best fish from the lake,” he says. It’s served as a fillet with tamarind reduction and pounded ambarella (golden apple).
The other is sanday (butter catfish), a big, torpedo-shaped predator with a large mouth and small tail that migrates between the Mekong and Tonle Sap. He serves that in a yellow curry sauce with green jackfruit.
Both are highly prized by Cambodians, and fetch high prices at the market, where Rivière, 32, follows the French tradition of shopping every morning for that night’s menu. With some foods only available for a month or two every year, he creates a new menu every week. But he’s given up describing his food as “local and seasonal”, cringing at the Noma-fuelled cliché it’s become.
“Everyone says that now,” he chuckles. “Now we say we choose premium products that happen to be seasonal…”
His food will dash any preconceptions about Cambodian food – or at least what most people think is Cambodian food – being bland and uninteresting. It’s piquantly flavoured with herbs, fish paste, fish sauce, and fermented soy beans. He’s a big fan of bold flavours like Cambodia’s famous fish ‘cheese’ prahok, and its more expensive sister maam, which is milder and more refined, if you can describe rotten fish that way, because it’s made using a different fermentation process.
He runs off to the kitchen and brings back a Tupperware box full of maam (pic above), which he will bake that night with minced pork and egg, and serve with herbs, flowers and local crudités.
“I always get it from the same supplier. She makes it for me without colour or MSG. The fish is salted for 24 hours then stacked in a jar with salted rice and galangal, and stored for one month until it becomes sour,” he says. “I don’t invent anything, I just use local products, and use quite traditional combinations, and then the technique and the presentation are definitely French.”
Another thing that differentiates his food is coriander. He doesn’t use it. It’s hard to find, because like carrots, potatoes, and onions, it doesn’t grow well in Cambodia. Instead, most restaurants use culantro, or lawn parsley, a coriander-tasting, jagged-toothed herb originally from the Caribbean (pic above). But he doesn’t use that either because he says it was brought here by Chinese immigrants, and you generally don’t find it in traditional Cambodian dishes.
Confusingly though, he does use ‘local thyme’ (chir slokkrahs, or pig’s ear – pic below), even though it’s another herb from the Caribbean. It’s a common fragrance often used in traditional Cambodian beef and tripe recipes, he explains. I don’t push the point any further.
He shows me the kitchen, pointing out the foot-high flood mark on the wooden door frame. It’s a lovely, airy space built on to the back of the house. When I mention how much it must have cost him, he just shrugs: “I have to spend 14 hours a day in here, so I want it to be a nice place.”
He leads me into a side chamber where a girl is prepping frogs for his pan-fried frog meat on a dry Vietnamese soup dish. Hang on – Vietnamese? I’m confused already. They have a short conversation in Khmer. From what I can tell she’s not too happy because the frogs aren’t as big as the last batch.
He leads me back into the main kitchen and proudly shows me the chicken stock simmering on the stove (pics below and above). He starts off by frying prahok paste, and then adds water, barbecued chicken, plenty of lemon grass stalks, lime leaves, and several heads of garlic, which will be carefully peeled and used as a garnish. The sour soup is then served with straw mushrooms, potulac, holy basil, and local thyme on the $17 five-course tasting menu.
Next to it is a tray of aubergines grilled to black. They’ll be made into a paste with ground smoked fish (pic below) to go with the fresh rice flake pancake. In the fridge is a bowl of chocolate and holy basil ganache, which is served on the second tasting menu, a six-courser for $24, with rice praline and salted caramel sheet.
I can tell from his passion, the presentation of the dishes, the quality of his ingredients, and the incredible smells why Blanc was so impressed – the fellow Frenchman describing his food as having “supreme command in the spicing, warm in the mouth, long flavours so perfect, complex but no sophistication: simply delicious.”
I ask him about the TV chef’s visit, but Rivière just shrugs.
“I knew his name but I wasn’t very familiar with his restaurant or anything. The chef from La Residence called me and said I want to book a table for Raymond Blanc – and I was fully booked. And he said ‘Oh come on, it’s Raymond Blanc!’ So we found him a table at the back in a dark corner of the terrace so he wouldn’t see too much,” he laughs.
Afterwards, Blanc asked for a tour of the kitchen and shook hands with the staff. He was intrigued by one of the dishes – ‘soup outside the pot’ – a vibrant, green dish of raw herbs and vegetables which at the last minute has broth made from dried fish and spices poured over it.
“He said I’ve never had such a thing before, this is genius! But it’s not something I invented, it’s very, very, traditional. Cambodians will put grated boiled eggs in it to thicken it up, but we don’t because it looks quite ugly…”
I ask whether it’s possible that Cambodia might be on its way to its first big restaurant award, given Blanc’s hyperbole, and the painfully-trendy vogue for locally-picked weeds, but Rivière just laughs in his usual modest manner.
“It’s not me who’d going to decide that,” he says.
Then I ask if I can do a day in his kitchen as part of the interview. He looks less surprised than reluctant. Then he suggests I meet him at the market at 7.45 on Wednesday morning and we take it from there…
This article was first posted on the excellent Chef Sandwich blog.
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