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Phnom Penh: The revival of Khmer food

Friends the Restaurant
215 street 13, Phnom Penh
855 12 802 072
Cuisine: International
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The revival of authentic Khmer food meant searching for cooks who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime and documenting their recipes before they were lost forever.
Phnom Penh is a foodtrippers dream. Huge food markets are lined with stalls filled deep with all the fresh herbs and spices a cook could possibly want. Great bunches of lemon grass, fresh turmeric, fragrant saw tooth mint and even ginseng, used here in yellow and red curry paste.
This vibrant city, sprawls along the banks of the great Mekong River and has a remarkable array of good restaurants - everything from Indo French to smart Japanese. Two of the best are Cambodian and run by the social enterprise Friends-International: Friends the Restaurant, a colourful, vibrant fun restaurant and Romdeng, a more sedate establishment housed in a traditional French Colonial house.
Friends International (in Khmer Mith Samlanh = “friends”) was founded by Sébastien Marot in 1994 to save lives and build bright futures for street children and youth. Friends International provides the children with a home, food, medicine, education and vocational training that teach skills leading to rewarding employment and a future they can be proud of. Two of these skills is cooking and service.
Trainees cook their way through a repertoire of recipes during the three levels of their hospitality training. Among them are such specialties as “Fresh river fish served with tamarind sauce and green mango and shallot relish” and “Prawns in crispy taro nest with palm wine and honey vinaigrette”. Each student learns to cook a variety of Cambodian and Western recipes, works in the service of one of the training restaurants to gain hands-on experience and learns about hygiene topics.  After graduation, students go on to find employment in the country’s burgeoning hospitality industry.
The chefs at Friends International, especially Romdeng,  have played an important role in reviving Cambodian food which was virtually annihilated during the 1970s and 1980s by the Khmer Rouge regime, along with much of the country’s rich culture. Until recently you could find bad Chinese and Thai food masquerading as Cambodian cuisine but true Cambodian, or Khmer food, remained elusive.  
The revival of authentic Khmer food meant searching for cooks who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime and documenting their recipes before they were lost forever. All the recipes used in Romdeng have been collected from the provinces across Cambodia, tried out and given a modern twist before including them on the menu.
Khmer cuisine is one of Asia’s hidden treasures. It is often described as a mix of Thai and Vietnamese but this is not quite the case. There are some distinctive features. The use of a wide range of fresh herbs, spices and salad leaves makes the food deliciously fragrant. It also uses bold flavours such as prahok, a fermented fish paste, in many dishes to give them a daring aroma.
The sour tamarind features prominently in this cuisine to balance the saltiness of prahok and the sweetness of palm sugar. Palm sugar is used to give a caramel sweet note to many Khmer dishes. Tamarind grows everywhere in Cambodia. The long bean pods split open to reveal a sticky paste which can be seen drying in the sun in most villages.
The food is mostly quite mild, with chilli pastes served as a small side dish which allows you to make your food as hot as you like. A typical Cambodian meal consists of a soup, a fried dish, salad and steamed rice.
Vegetables are nearly always the main component of a meal as meat is expensive and in short supply. Fresh river fish is excellent. Cat fish and lung fish are succulent, clean tasting white fish that combine beautifully with the herbs and spices of this glorious cuisine.
Fruit is sometimes strange in Cambodia. The famously smelly but delicious durian, the odd but tasty soursop, the scented and strange looking mangosteen and longan an eyeball type fruit - something like a lychee, are plentiful and often served as a selection at the end of a meal.
In Cambodia it is traditional to serve food with spoons; forks and chop sticks but never knives. The other custom Westerners have to get used to when eating with Khmer people is either sitting crossed legged or on very low stools.
At Friends and Romdeng however the western tradition of sitting on chairs prevails. Bright, smiling, faces welcome you into these restaurants. Waiting staff wear trademark Friends T-shirts and the trainees are carefully supervised by a mentor. They attend the tables diligently; listen carefully to orders and all speak very good English. The service at both restaurants cannot be faulted even when they are really busy.
There are differences between the two restaurants. Friends is, cheaper, hipper and specialises in vibrant cocktails such as frozen daiquiris and Asian/Western style tapas dishes whereas Romdeng, awaits its guests with creative Cambodian cooking with recipes from the country’s provinces.
At Romdeng both red tree ants and deep fried tarantula are on the menu. I felt I should try one of these dishes and choose the spiders with lime and black pepper sauce. Four large black spiders arrived  and the sight of them completely shocked me. They were huge, brisling and very, very black. The only thought I could muster in my effort to nibble these creatures was that Cambodians love them, crunching them whole like crisps. I tried a leg. It was all crunch and no taste. The full on lime and pepper sauce helped make up for this. I took the body of a spider, dipped in more sauce and popped it in my mouth. The meat tasted quite sweet, almost like crab. Nobody offered to join me in my spiderfest, so still smiling, I crunched and swallowed the other three arachnids and was not at all sure whether I really liked them.
Also on the menu were Khmer dishes such as delicious shitake mushrooms wrapped in bean curd rolls and served in a deliciously flavoursome miso broth, and fish amok. This is another provincial specialty, made by steaming a fragrant, freshly made yellow curry paste and coconut milk with fillets of cat fish in a cute basket made from a banana leaf.
Two lovely desserts followed. Sticky rice with sliced mango basted with caramelised palm syrup, and pineapple in coconut jelly with kaffir lime syrup. Both were sweet fruity and beautiful balance of flavour.
At Friends the Restaurant we were welcomed with stunning raspberry and lime daiquiris. The temperature was well above 40C and this was exactly what we needed. We then chose a selection of dishes to share including fishcakes served with a beautiful bright red pepper coulis; grilled fish with salsa; pork with marinated lotus bean sprouts, crispy wantons with a red chilli sauce and a crunchy noodle salad. Puddings were good too. We loved the caramelised pineapple with chilli ice cream, mango and ginger crumble and lime meringue pie.
The meals we ate at Romdeng and Friends were the best we had in Cambodia and fortunately not the most challenging. Later our host told me that I hadn’t really sampled Cambodian cuisine until I had tasted the street food known as balut. Balut is eaten all over Asia. It is a fertilised duck egg, with an almost fully developed embryo inside and complete with a beak and wispy feathers. The eggs are cooked just before the duckling starts to hatch and eaten with a spoon and washed down with beer.
Friends the Restaurant, 215 street 13,Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
For bookings: + (855) 12 802 072
Open Monday to Sunday from 11am to 9pm and 7days from 1st January 2011.
Romdeng, #74 Street 174, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
For bookings + (855) 92 219 565
Open Monday to Sunday from 11am to 9pm.
Image credit: Friends International
2 Comments | Add a comment


Dionne Marshall
Perth, Australia
I ate here last year and the food was amazing!!! you will pay a little more than other places, but it is worth every penny. And the best part is you are helping the community. I recommend every traveler eating here when visiting Cambodia
Joannes Riviere
Siem Reap Cambodia
It is important to make a clear difference between the terms Khmer and Cambodian. “Khmer” is an ethnic word referring to a group of people, their culture and eventually their cuisine. Khmer food did not disappear during the Khmer rouge. Real traditional Khmer food was the food of the countryside people which did not suffer as much as the city people who were by definition the enemy of the Angkar. Country food is still really alive and common around the country, all the more since the Khmer population is quiet homogeneous within the country (which is not the case for Thailand for example.) The food that got lost during the Khmer rouge was the food from cities that had a much stronger Chinese and western influences. Its peak was during the “Sangkum Reastr Niyum” when Phnom Penh was the trendiest capital in South East Asia. A very good example of it can be found in the cook book “The Cambodian Cook Book” published by King Norodom Sihanouk’s aunt at this time. The “Shitake/soy skin/miso type broth described in the article is probably an example of that lost city food; it is a Cambodian dish; but because of the ingredients used it is certainly not a Khmer dish. Unfortunately there is not such a thing as the “revival of Khmer food”, but only a few people that are trying to promote a patrimony that did not interest any one before and that is already a good start.


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3 January 2011
By: Joan Ransley
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