In Northern Cambodia’s Siem Reap, home to spectacular Angkor Wat, Lara Dunston finds herself consumed by the rich cuisine as much as the historic Khmer Empire temple complex. Images by Terence Carter.
Deep in flavour, the Saraman curry was redolent of spices, the heady scents of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom wafting through the lofty dining room of the grand Malis restaurant. The handsome Cambodian waiter, clad head to toe in black, carried the dish on a silver tray from the kitchen to my table, wide smile beaming my way. He closed his eyes and inhaled before spooning the steaming curry over a mound of rice on the ceramic white plate he’d set before me. Several hours on the stove had reduced the coconut milk to a thick, rich cream and caused the tender Australian Blackmore beef to fall off the bone – and melt in my mouth. No wonder all I wanted to do here was to eat.
Siem Reap was the centre of power for the Khmer Empire, responsible for stupendous temple-cities with exquisite carvings depicting ancient mythology, it was a sophisticated civilisation. It produced the classical dance, traditional music, martial arts – along with an influential yet little-known cuisine.
A Cuisine Rich in History
There may have been the little distraction of the sprawling UNESCO World Heritage listed Angkor Archaeological Park, with its star attraction, stupendous Angkor Wat, only fifteen minutes away but after a few days scrambling the temples, I was pleased to be exploring the dining scene and was delighted with my delicious discoveries.
Despite its colonial charm and modern pleasures – fabulous shopping, heavenly spas, lively nightlife – Siem Reap is a gritty city, with a coffee-coloured river, broken footpaths and dusty lanes for streets in parts. ‘Tuk tuks’, open sided carriages pulled by motorbikes – are still the main form of transport. While there’s a rising middle class and youthful population working hard to its community out of poverty, Cambodia remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries.
But it’s impossible to forget that Siem Reap was the centre of power for the Khmer Empire, one of Asia’s greatest, once ruling over a vast territory covering much of what’s now Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Responsible for stupendous temple-cities with exquisite carvings and bas-reliefs depicting ancient mythology, it was a sophisticated civilisation. It produced the classical dance, traditional music, martial arts, textiles and handicrafts now found in neighbouring countries – along with an influential yet little-known cuisine.
Angkor Wat 1
Temples of Gastronomy
Set in a traditional, two-storey timber house with tables on a breezy veranda, Sugar Palm was one of Siem Reap’s first proper restaurants and remains a favourite. Cambodian owner-chef Kethana Dunnett was studying in New Zealand when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. She remained there until she felt it time to return, with husband Bruce in tow, to restore some of the culinary history lost during those tragic five years and decade-long Vietnamese occupation that followed.
Specialising in the Cambodian home cooking her mother and grandmother taught her to make, Kethana became the go-to consultant for visiting chefs working on Southeast Asian cookbooks and programmes, advising everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Luke Nguyen. After a tangy pomelo and pork salad, textured with toasted coconut and crunchy dried shrimp, and fragrant with fresh mint, and a stir-fry of squid, perfumed with coriander and fruity peppercorns from Kampot on the coast, it was obvious why.
But the dish that would set Kethana’s food apart was her famous fish amok, a rich, soufflé-like, steamed curry, aromatic from the ‘kroeung’ (paste) of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric and kaffir lime that is its base, and drizzled with coconut cream. While every Siem Reap restaurant offers the dish, Kethana’s amok, prepared in the painstaking old way, from the pounding of herbs and spices in a mortar and pestle to the 40-minutes of steaming, sets the standard that few meet.
In a more contemporary riverside venue with a lush garden, traditional wooden house and sleek alfresco space, Chanrey Tree serves a slightly more refined style of Cambodian cuisine based on owner Kaan Soann’s mother’s recipes. I can’t stop eating an appetiser of crispy rice crackers with a peanut-based ‘natang’ sauce and deep-fried frangipani flowers. Other highlights include ‘char kroeung’, plump frogs legs stir-fried in the herbaceous kroeung paste, and a succulent free-range chicken roasted with honey, rice brandy, young jackfruit, and lemongrass, with a pungent ‘prahok’ (fermented fish) dipping sauce.
Even more sophisticated is Malis next door, the imposing restaurant of Phnom Penh based celebrity chef Luu Meng that for Cambodians is the country’s finest. Decorated with sensual stone statues of Apsaras (the ‘messengers to the gods’) and filmy floor-to-ceiling curtains in the towering lounge-bar, it’s a restaurant out to impress. Fortunately the fine food, from baked Mekong lobsters to that sublime Saraman curry, holds up to the sumptuous setting.
Yet it’s a more modest fine-diner by expat French owner-chef Joannès Rivière, in another renovated traditional house in a village-like neighbourhood that foreign gourmands flock to, booking tables months in advance. Named Cambodia’s Best Restaurant in 2016 when it climbed to #43 on the San Pellegrino Asia’s Best Restaurants list, Cuisine Wat Damnak offers just two multi-course tasting menus of innovative contemporary Cambodian cuisine, rooted in tradition, and made with fresh local produce. My husband and I order one each, sharing each bite, so we can taste as much a possible. After a meal here, most diners are wishing they’d booked a second night – and stayed in Siem Reap longer.
Singapore Airlines and Silk Air offer frequent flights from Australia to Siem Reap via Singapore. Enjoy a stay at Maison Polanka. Exquisite dining experiences are available at The Sugar Palm, Cuisine Wat Damnak, Malis Restaurant and Chanrey Tree. For more information visit Siem Reap Tourism.