Mork Mengly of Pou Restaurant and Bar in Siem Reap relates Cambodian food’s characteristics to the country’s tumultuous history and shares his hopes for the Khmer scene.
For a long time, outsiders didn’t know more than bits and pieces of stereotypes about Cambodian food. What’s more unfortunate is that many Cambodians themselves are unsure of the facts and perpetuate erroneous information—for instance, that ours is borrowed from Thai and Vietnamese food. No doubt, geography and history has left our neighbours’ traces on our cuisine but I think Cambodian holds its ground. We just need to take time to acquaint people with the history, flavours and ingredients. That was my motivation for starting Pou: to showcase the kind of street food, as well as jungle-style cooking I grew up with.
Sweet and sour are the dominant flavours and Cambodian food also often mixes ingredients from both the lake and the jungle. At Pou, one of our most famous dishes is Kulen Mountain sausages garnished with red ants for their acidity. It’s an opportunity for us to set the context for Cambodian food’s other key stereotype: that we eat weird, exotic stuff. I want people to understand that it was famine and desperation during the Pol Pot years that forced us to grasp at anything and everything to stave off hunger. People even added tree bark into soups for the flavour and dark hue it lends.
The most integral element of Cambodian cuisine is freshwater fish—we have it every single day. Unlike meats, typically an occasional treat such as on payday, fish was something you could eat for free, sourced from the waterways and paddy field ponds that the Mekong and Tonle Sap flow into. Agriculture has traditionally been our main source of economy, and even now, rural families depend on their fields for sustenance. We consume fish in all its numerous forms but prahok—fermented fish paste—is a quintessential building block for all kinds of dishes and condiments, including tuk kroeung, a dipping sauce for raw vegetables.
The Pol Pot regime was a major blow on our food culture. The climate of fear incited then was so deep-seated that till now, many Cambodians from that era are hesitant to share information with others. Traditional culinary knowledge is just one part of the cultural heritage that we’ve lost.
That’s also why I envisioned my restaurant Pou the way it is. I make a point to stay true to traditional Cambodian ingredients and flavours, but I present the dishes in a more refined manner to get people excited and talking. I want people to realise that Cambodian food too can be interesting and elegant.
It’s a roundabout way to market the restaurant to tourists in the hope that the buzz they create would pique Cambodians’ curiosity but it has paid off. In 2015, I formed Asian Street Food Cambodia with other like-minded chefs to promote and advance our street food scene. I hope to one day link up with street food associations in other Asian cities.
For a long time, dining in Siem Reap has been synonymous with touristy Pub Street. Now, with our street food efforts and the growing crop of modern Cambodian restaurants, I’m optimistic that Siem Reap too will become an important food city within the next five years or so.
The above, as told to Mia Chenyze, was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2019 issue – The Art of Craft.