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Chef Rotanak Ros flashes a broad smile as she welcomes us through the gates of her traditional wooden home. We’d set off from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh about 45 minutes earlier, our tuk tuk leaving behind bustling city life as we drove along busy National Road 6. A turn down a winding dirt track leads us to her classic home close to the banks of the River Mekong.
We follow Rattanak, known affectionately as Nak, as she walks through lush tropical gardens spilling over with a rainbow of flora to a table that sits beneath the main body of her grand stilted home. We look out over a small swimming pool as Nak briefly introduces herself and the exclusive evening of eating and entertainment that lies ahead.
The sound of traditional music gently floats through the air from two musicians performing on a nearby balcony as Nak escorts us up the flight of wooden stairs – she does have a five-course meal to tend to after all – to an open-air terrace that sits next to her spacious kitchen.
She proudly shows us around. Rattan baskets are full of a colourful array of fresh ingredients, pots boil and pans sizzle on the hob and the air is alive with the scent of herbs and spices. “I want to share the taste of Cambodian home cooking with the world,” says Nak, concentration etched on her face as she puts the finishing touches to our appetiser.
Giving a modern twist to the fine-dining concept, Nak, who cooks from the heart with infectious passion, has created an eating experience that sheds away the stuffiness of a top-class restaurant while injecting a dose of luxury into hearty home cooking.
“Everything I cook is inspired by what I buy fresh that morning at the market,” she says. “I try to show the differences in Cambodian cooking, from stir-fry and grill, to soups and salad, and sweet, sour and savoury. A lot of the food I put on the table has a story relating to me; something I remember from my childhood. These are sometimes sweet memories but sometimes quite bitter because life was up and down.”
Despite being born into a foodie family, growing up in the wake of the Khmer Rouge meant life was tough, and food was considered a necessity rather than a luxury to get creative with.
“My parents were young during the Khmer Rouge and didn’t receive a proper education,” recalls Nak. “They had to do hard labour and were away from home a lot, so we ate whatever my mum could think to cook for us the night before. I got sick of eating the same thing so started to make my own food.”
As plates of crispy shrimp cakes start to emerge from the kitchen, Nak addresses her audience – something she does before all of the evening’s courses. Each served with its own story, with Nak refining and reinventing dishes from her childhood, carefully cradling tradition along the way.
As we tuck into the deliciously crunchy cakes, which are served with a Kampot pepper and lime dipping sauce and lightly fried mushrooms on the side, Nak tells us this was her favourite snack as a child. “I would always set aside some money to buy them on my way home from school,” she says as we tuck into the dish.
As our next dish appears before us, Nak explains how Cambodians have been eating these strange-sounding leaves for centuries. Called rat-ear weed, it can be found growing wild in gardens, ports, along walls and up fences and adds a unique, sharp taste to a dish. Here, Nak has added her own flair, frying plump prawns and adding her own special spicy sauce to give it a refreshing kick.
As we polish off our food, Nak makes her way round the small scattering of tables. She recalls noticing as she grew up the number of traditional Cambodian dishes were dwindling – and rapidly. “Cuisine is an art form, and like other traditional Cambodian art forms, Khmer cooking is in danger of dying,” she says. “I feel it’s my responsibility to protect and preserve it.”
Next, a well-plated dish of cary trei, or fish curry, is delivered to our table, accompanied with a warm tale of how Nak’s grandmother would cook it for the family when she was younger.
Each of the ingredients sit separately: fresh noodles, beansprouts, shredded cucumber and a filet of steamed fruit wrapped in a banana leaf parcel sit around a fragrant bowl of curry sauce. A dash of colour is added with purple and yellow edible flowers, pkar Kamploak and pkar snao.
“In Cambodia, we pass traditions on from old to young generations orally and a lot of things aren’t written down,” says Nak. “It’s the same with Cambodian cuisine. I know if we don’t rush to do it now then there won’t be enough time. I know the secret keepers of these recipes are the ones who are living in villages across Cambodia.”
As the final two courses are served – one of the country’s signature dishes, fish amok, followed by a smooth coconut custard cake – Nak shares her ultimate vision. “I need to find those who still have knowledge of what they remember eating when they were young, especially before the Khmer Rouge,” she says, noting it is a race against time.
This project, Food on Golden Land, will see Nak head to all of Cambodia’s 25 provinces to collect recipes from grandmas and grandpas who remember the dishes cooked up for them when they were young. These stories will then be turned into video documentaries and the chef’s second cookbook.
Her first book of recipes, Nhum, is released in August, with Nak touring America throughout July to promote it. “Cooking isn’t just my passion, Cambodian cuisine belongs to our people and I want to preserve it for future generations.”
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