Phnom Penh: “We eat first with our eyes,” observes Rotanak Ros, setting a bountiful dish down on the rustic wooden dining table. My own eyes dance with anticipation at the finely chopped banana blossoms and fresh local vegetables, bean sprouts and rice noodles, all stylishly arrayed around a small bowl filled to the rim with a smooth creamy sauce. “Fish curry,” the young chef announces. I raise a quizzical eyebrow at this deconstructed version of a humble favorite—typically served as a hearty, more-is-more stew. “For our heritage to endure, I try to modernize Khmer dishes in accessible ways,” she explains.
Chef Nak, as she prefers to be called, is just 33 years old and entirely self-taught. But she is attracting attention beyond Cambodia’s borders with her efforts to preserve the country’s endangered foodways. We are at Mahope, her restaurant and cooking school, housed in a traditional Khmer villa on the palm-dappled outskirts of Phnom Penh. Here, in the home she shares with her husband and two young sons, she holds culinary classes and serves private, one-booking-at-a-time dinners of five courses, among them the minimalist fish curry before me. It is among the most familiar dishes in an archive Nak is compiling of Khmer recipes—part of her broader initiative to track down native culinary traditions and share them with the world through books, teaching, television, and social media.
Whenever she can, Nak leaves the country’s bustling capital for Cambodia’s still-rustic provinces. “I go to people’s homes and ask about their family’s favorite dishes and recipes,” she says. “I always request to speak with the oldest person in the house, to learn what people ate before the Khmer Rouge,” the murderous regime that held power from 1974 to 1979. During a recent visit to Siem Reap province, north of Phnom Penh, she fondly recalls tasting a lemongrass- and tamarind-infused duck soup with palm fruit “used as a vegetable—which I’d never seen before.” (More commonly, she explains, its seeds are extracted and used to add crunch to dessert toppings.) And Nak speaks with infectious—though, to me, unpersuasive—enthusiasm for a northern dish of snakeheads and glass noodles wrapped in palm leaves. Back in Phnom Penh, her ever-changing menus represent a synthesis of these far-flung finds, while also educating her guests in the rich complexities of Cambodia’s distinct cuisine. “Every single dish has a story behind it,” she says, motioning to the food in front of us. “And I know we are running out of time.”
Nak’s endeavors to preserve her country’s precarious culinary heritage grew out of the eight years she spent working for Cambodian Living Arts, a program founded after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to track down the surviving masters of Khmer art, music and dance. Starting as an office assistant, Nak worked her way up to senior management in the organization, which safeguards the country’s heritage by teaching it to a new generation, who then travel the world to perform and demonstrate these nearly lost traditions.
“Seeking out the ‘grannies’ is something I learned at Cambodia Living Arts,” Nak recalls. Back then, she would visit eight to ten different provinces each week to meet with survivors of what she simply calls “the fighting times,” during which artists and other intellectuals were targeted by Pol Pot’s vicious Khmer Rouge guerrillas. It was on those travels that she also observed local cuisine disappearing, as younger Cambodians started migrating to cities and recipes were no longer passed from generation to generation. As with the famed Apsara dances that appear chiseled into the walls at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s culinary history was starting to vanish in the modern world.
Since going out on her own, Nak has developed an impressive arsenal of tactics to combat this loss of edible cultural heritage. She produces a Khmer cooking series on YouTube, and expects to release her first book by the end of 2018. She has already published more than 150 Cambodian recipes on her website, rotanak.co. “Since I was very young, I always wanted to do something with cooking,” she says as she sets down a plate of crispy shrimp cakes with Kampot pepper and lime sauce by the swimming pool. “I also saw the potential to create meaningful cultural exchange through food—which everyone can also just enjoy.” And she views Mahope as an opportunity to underscore the health benefits of her native cuisine, rich in superfoods like ginger, turmeric, and bitter melon. Later in the evening, as a luscious crescent of thinly sliced mango and a bundle of sticky rice wrapped in a palm frond arrives in front of each guest, I tell her I admire her motivation and ambition. “I really want to educate people,” she responds modestly. “Food is simply my medium.”
Photo by: Supplied