“The herbs are all on one level and the vegetables on another,” says chef Luu Meng. “This herb is sa om, and it smells like asparagus.” He thrusts the pungent leaves under my nose. “And our basil is really lemony. European chefs don’t understand how acidic Cambodian herbs are; it’s better to use them whole or sliced rather than blended.”
Inside Phnom Penh’s dimly lit Phsar Boeung Keng Kang market, the aisles have become torrents of shoppers. I struggle to stay afloat and keep Luu in view, distracted by the stalls around me, each one an explosion of colour and organised with military precision. The chef swerves towards a fish stall and I almost lose him. “It’s rare to find tonguefish in the market, so if I see it, I buy it all,” he says.
Chef Luu Meng is a man on a mission. ‘Cambodia’s Gordon Ramsay’ — as one local told me wryly — is committed to putting Cambodia’s cuisine back on the world stage after spending years in Thailand and Vietnam’s gastronomic shadow. His story is inspirational: after his family fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Cooking is in his blood — his grandma was a chef at the Royal Palace, his mum had a noodle stall on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Described as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ for much of the 20th century, Phnom Penh is a beguiling city. The elegant French and Khmer architecture, along with a peppering of picturesque pagodas on the banks of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers made the Cambodian capital one of Southeast Asia’s most intoxicating centres before the Khmer Rouge era. Today, it’s coming into its own once more with a thriving bar scene, vibrant cafe culture and host of outstanding restaurants, such as Luu’s Kroeung Garden Restaurant.
When we head there, workstations are being set up on the leafy balcony. We’re making his signature soup, samlor prahal. No Cambodian meal would be complete without a light, sour soup like this.
“Cambodia’s cuisine has absorbed influences from its neighbours, but there are subtle differences,” says Luu, as he chops ingredients. “It’s not as hot or as sweet as Thai; our food is only mildly spicy and we use less fish sauce than in Vietnam. We use spices, but fresh not powdered like in India. In Khmer cuisine, everything is fresh.”
Another important maxim of Cambodian cuisine is that things can’t be rushed; the soup takes three to four hours to make and the key ingredient is kroeung, the fresh herb and spice paste that’s the bedrock of so many Cambodian dishes, and the inspiration behind the restaurant — and its name. “It’s all about slow cooking,” says Luu.
We pound fresh turmeric, garlic, ginger, galangal, chillis, shallots and young lemongrass in a bowl, then add the paste to the broth. Luu adds to the soup a handful of winter melon — a soft, courgette-like vegetable — along with a splash of fish sauce and chunks of river fish, handing me a spoon to taste. It’s refreshingly light and aromatic.
“In Cambodia, the focus is on local specialities,” he says. “Everyone knows that the best chicken comes from Siem Reap, the best rice from Battambang, the best coconut from Kampot.”
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