Cambodian street kids spearhead Khmer food revival
Tue Jan 15, 2008 5:33pm IST
By Gillian Murdoch
Phnom Penh (Reuters Life!) – First kill your tarantulas by pressing hard on their bodies then remove the fangs and wash the spiders thoroughly, advises the glossy in-house recipe book from Phnom Penh’s Romdeng restaurant.
Served with a lime and pepper sauce, the crispy arachnids, fried to remove their venom, became a delicacy during Khmer Rouge reign over Cambodia when Pol Pot’s plan to create an agrarian utopia forced millions from cities to the country.
The spiders are part of the restaurant’s mission to champion Khmer food from the present and dating back to the Khmer Kingdom of over 1,000 years ago while also helping provide work and a new life for street kids.
Virtually annihilated during the Khmer Rouge’s reign that ended in 1979, Cambodia’s traditional specialties are less well-known than Western-friendly pad thais and rice-paper rolls from bigger neighbors Thailand and Vietnam although many regional dishes have their roots in Khmer cooking.
But with Cambodia rapidly developing, restaurants such as Romdeng are helping spearhead a comeback, said founder Sebastien Marot and top chef Sok Chhong who put together the cookbook "From Spiders to Water Lillies."
While the spiders may seem like a gimmick, the restaurant also has a serious social mission — getting young people off the streets and into employment and education.
Run by Cambodian non-profit Mit Samlanh or Friends, Romdeng and its sister restaurant Friends are staffed by former street kids who design the menus, cook the dishes, wait tables, and even sew the silk cushions for the chairs.
So what will Cambodia’s breakthrough dish be if tarantulas are not to everyone’s taste?
The country is considering submitting its "prahok" fish paste and peppercorns from the southeastern town of Kampot for trademarking as distinctive national products but it is "amok" curry that probably has the widest crossover appeal.
Milder than other curries, as Cambodia’s traditional dishes were first cooked up in the days before traders introduced chili to the region, it is named after the dark green amok leaf that’s shredded into the dish as a seasoning.
Not surprisingly in a country crisscrossed by the Mekong and two other mighty rivers, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac, fish and shrimps feature heavily on Cambodian menus.
A range of local vegetable dishes also get a creative spin, in dishes like morning glory and water spinach salad, and sautéed rice and chive flower cakes on green papaya salad.
As there are no starters or mains in Khmer culture, all the food comes at once, and there are also no knives so don’t wait for anything more than your fork and spoon.
Washed down the meal with a bottle of local Anchor beer, a shot of honey-flavored Khmer rice wine, or fancy combination juices such as sweet tamarind, guava and honey.
True converts to Khmer cooking can end the meal with a commitment by buying the cookbook that feeds its profits back into the endeavor.
Romdeng:#21, Street 278 Phnom Penh (Tel:+ 855 92 219 565)
Friends: #215, Street 13, Phnom Penh (Tel:+855 12 802 072) http://www.streetfriends.org/CONTENT/BUSINESS/restaurant_final.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)