Monday, July 1, 2013

Wat's Cooking in Siem Reap

Going Places, Malaysia Airlines, July 2013

Although more renowned for its temples, Siem Reap is also carving a reputation as a destination for foodies.
For centuries Siem Reap was a small Cambodian village that garnered little attention from the outside world. Then, in the early 1900s, the French "rediscovered" the majestic temples of Angkor and helped reclaim them from the encroaching jungle, and international tourism to the area began. These days the town is the heart of Cambodia's tourism industry. Last year more than two million people traveled to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and the other ancient Khmer temples. 

Until recently, however, Siem Reap offered little in the way of dining options beyond greasy fried noodles. But now visitors have more than the temples be impressed by: the town boasts a plethora of outstanding restaurants and international cuisines.

"Siem Reap is a tiny place," says Carole Salmon, the co-owner of Cuisine Wat Damnak, one of Siem Reap's top tables. "It's still a village, really, but now we have so many types of food!" 

Indeed, small-town Siem Reap has become a thrilling melting pot of culinary flavors. Chefs from around the world have decided to make Siem Reap home and have opened upscale French, Italian, Korean, British, Japanese and even Cambodian restaurants. For their part, Khmers have returned from studying and working abroad to open restaurants of their own and make the most of Cambodia's bountiful produce. 

"We're very lucky, because the local vegetables are fantastic," says Francesco Di Leo, the owner of L’Osteria. "And the Kampot pepper is better even than what I got in Italy."

Di Leo, who hails from Naples, opened L’Osteria last December and has already gained renown  for serving dishes so authentically Italian that diners can hardly believe they're still in Cambodia. The tiny restaurant has the feel of a traditional Italian osteria, with just seven tables, three of them outside, and serves Italian wines and simple but delicious food made with imported olive oil, meats and cheeses. While the produce Di Leo uses is is all from Cambodia, the taste is entirely Italian. His "Big Italy Plate" serves two and features nibbles from across the Italian peninsula, from Roman croquettes and Parma ham to fresh mozzarella and arancini, savory fried rice balls filled with ragu and peas. 

Before gaining its independence in 1953, Cambodia was part of French Indochina. The French influence can still be felt in the country's cuisine, and Cambodia remains popular with French expats, tourists and chefs. One of Siem Reap's longest-running fine dining establishments is the very Gallic restaurant Abacus. Opened by French natives Renaud Fichet and Pascal Schmit in 2004, the elegant eatery serves upscale French fare with an Asian twist, complemented by an excellent selection of French wines. "There's so much choice in Siem Reap," says Fichet. "The same kind of food and wine in Thailand or Malaysia would cost double or even triple what it does here." 

Another Frenchman is Cuisine Wat Damnak's chef, Joannès Rivière, who has become famous across Cambodia for his masterful and creative take on traditional Khmer flavors. Rivière was previously the head chef at Siem Reap's famed Hotel de la Paix and struck out on his own in 2011. With Cuisine Wat Damnak, he wanted to focus on Cambodian flavors that are usually ignored in restaurants popular with foreigners, and now his four- and five-course meals are becoming legendary among tourists and locals alike. He cooks only with local meats, vegetables, and fruits, eschewing most ingredients from outside Cambodia, but feels free to  experiment with traditional Cambodian recipes in a way a traditional Khmer chef might not. Rivière also serves up dishes that are well known to Cambodians but new to foreigners, such as maam, a mild fermented fish paste. In Rivière's version of the dish, the sourness of the maam  is balanced by caramelized palm sugar and spicy Cambodian green peppercorns, and it’s served with a side of fragrant fresh salad and vegetables similar to Malaysian ulam.

Also taking advantage of the freedom to experiment outside of their own culinary traditions are several Khmer chefs working in Siem Reap. One of the most popular French bakery in town is Le Pain du Coeur, a small shop that supplies baked goods to many of the local restaurants. Its Cambodian born baker, Leak Sokoun, trained in France, and Rivière, who takes his French pâtisserie seriously, raves that Leak makes "the best chocolatine in all of Southeast Asia." 

Siv Pola grew up outside of Siem Reap and worked with a Michelin-starred chef in Switzerland before coming home to open his own Mie Cafe. The small restaurant features both Western and Khmer dishes, but most of Siv’s specialities delicately combine a bit of both. There's a starter listed on the menu as beef laap that is in fact much closer to an Asian steak tartare, a dish of nearly raw chopped beef flavored with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, lemongrass and ginger that neatly marries the flavors of East and West. Another spectacular starter is the tuna tartare, served on a bed of avocado and juicy ripe mango and flavored with sesame, wasabi and chili. 

Thanks to its many expats from South Korea, Siem Reap also offers several Korean dining options. One of the favorites is Happy, a pair of restaurants that stand side by side on the road to the airport. One offers a more casual menu, while the other focuses on Korean barbeque, but the food at both is delicious. The traditionally Korean menu features dishes like mul naengmyeon, a cold sweet-and-sour noodle soup that is served over ice with chilled cucumbers, daikon radish and a halved hard-boiled egg. It's the perfect antidote to Siem Reap's sweltering heat. 

Lovers of Japanese cuisine won't be disappointed, either. Basho offers an interesting array of dishes in a lovely restaurant featuring traditional Japanese screens, low wooden tables and paper lanterns. Opened by Fukuoka native Masako Suitsu, the menu features Japanese dishes that make the most of locally sourced ingredients. Because sushi-grade fish is hard to come by, Basho offers vegetarian sushi made from local vegetables. Another standout is the mackerel steak, served with grated radish and sweet pumpkin. Like the restaurant itself, the pumpkin has ties to both Cambodia and Japan--the Japanese name for the pumpkin is kabocha, which derives from the Portuguese word for Cambodia. 

Even British favorites can be found in Siem Reap. For those looking for a nibble after an early morning sunrise at the temples, The Sun offers a range of tasty breakfast choices, including traditional English fry-ups prepared by the Sun's British chef. Those in the know say the fluffy blueberry pancakes with maple syrup are the standout on the menu, which also features tasty Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. Guests can enjoy breezy outdoor seating and the town's best people-watching spot on Siem Reap's famous Pub Street.

With more tourists arriving every year, and more expats deciding to call the town home, Siem Reap seems likely to remain the culinary capital of Cambodia's international food scene. "If you compare the diversity of the food with the size of the city, it's actually very impressive,” says Rivière. "In such a small perimeter you have everything you could possibly want."