Think of Cambodia and Siem Reap would come to mind. After all, the dusty town is home to the legendary Angkor Wat, and has long been known to be a quintessential holidaying spot. Yet Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is catching up and is fast emerging as a must-visit destination.
The financial hub was once considered just a pit stop before boarding a five-hour-long bus ride up to Siem Reap. But a quick look around would show that the city has lots to discover. Luxury hotels like Rosewood have even entered the market, giving us more reason to appreciate the Cambodian capital.
This renaissance has extended to the dining scene. While much of Cambodia’s culinary culture was lost during the Khmer Rouge regime, young chefs are finding new passion in recovering the forgotten dishes of old that go deeper than just fish amok and larb. Here are 5 must-visit restaurants in Phnom Penh for a true taste of Cambodia.
At Malis Restaurant, Cambodian chef Luu Meng made it his goal to preserve traditional recipes lost during the Khmer Rouge regime. He dubs his food ‘living Cambodian cuisine’ — which sees fine-dining renditions of classic Khmer dishes using modern techniques and local ingredients. Fish amok, a popular dish of spiced fish paste steamed in banana leaves, is reinterpreted here as a glorious marriage of fermented fish, local herbs and minced pork. Also worth looking out for here is the Kampot crab fried rice, brightened with kaffir lime, fresh local crab and a good amount of wokhei.
La’Baab is an anachronistic haven hidden within Phnom Penh’s chaotic CBD. The restaurant is decked out in traditional Cambodian designs and furnishings — a reflection of the restaurant owner’s reverence for ancient temples and architecture. The menu pays homage to everyday recipes from the Lower Mekong and sees a natural fusion of Vietnamese and Cambodian flavours. Diners here can start with samlor kako soup of Cambodian herbs, fish paste and vegetables then move on to a Vietnamese speciality of snails stuffed with minced pork and lemongrass.
Eating insects in Phnom Penh may seem like a novelty to most tourists. But for Cambodians, these are reminders of the famine suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime. Even so, the practise of eating insects has become a part of life and turned into a street snack rather than necessary nourishment. Romdeng would be the perfect restaurant to head to if you’re in for an authentic culinary take on these insects. One of the most famous starters here is the deep-fried tarantula, seasoned with just a touch of Kampot black pepper and lime juice. There’s also red tree ants stir-fried with basil and slices of beef. Those who aren’t too keen with these ingredients will find solace in other great dishes like roast pork belly with morning glory salad and smoked duck breast larb. Dining at Romdeng is for a good cause too: the restaurant doubles as vocational training for formerly homeless children.
Since opening up to the world, Phnom Penh has also welcomed a variety of international cuisines and aspiring chefs. Japanese restaurants are not uncommon in the city, promising fresh fish from the other side of the globe. Le Broken Plate aims to play the game a little differently. Chef Narith Plong weaves in seasonal ingredients from both Japan and Cambodia’s fecund rivers to his omakase menus. Expect items like fresh local oysters and miso soup featuring Mekong lobster alongside sushi and sashimi.
After a massive revamp, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal has come back with an update to its iconic dining establishment, Restaurant Le Royal. Befitting of its name and origins, the restaurant will now be sharing a taste of Royal Khmer cuisine with diners. All recipes are personally shared by the decree of the Royal Palace of Cambodia, recreated in Restaurant Le Royal with care. Diners can choose to enjoy three, four or five course, and pick from options like green mango salad with grilled scallops or Mekong lobster amok. It’s still food fit for kings: the Cambodian royal family is said to have made this restaurant their regular haunt.