For AsiaLIFE’s fourth annual cook-off, the challenge was straightforward: prepare fish – one of the Kingdom’s favourite proteins – with a Khmer influence. However, asking this of some of Phnom Penh’s best chefs meant the results were far from simple. Modernist, French, Italian, Japanese and traditional Khmer techniques were used to make some truly original entries. Words by Erin Hale. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

While some chefs chose to take Khmer influence more literally than others, each dish was executed superbly, with entrants ranging from river fish to salmon and prawns. In line with previous years, there is no winner. The aim of the game is to showcase the talented and creative work that goes on in kitchens across the capital. And one thing this year’s challenge proved through each of the carefully-concocted dish, is the versatility seafood has to offer. The one winner to emerge, though, was Khmer fine dining. With so many creative chefs rattling around Phnom Penh – and Siem Reap – it’s only a matter of time before Cambodian cuisine gets the same reputation abroad as Thai and Vietnamese food. 

AsiaLIFE 2016 Cook-off

Chef: Timothy Bruyns
The Tiger’s Eye
Herb-cured Salmon Confit

From the first bite, it’s clear that South African chef Timothy Bruyns’ cook-off entry is a winner. The herb-cured salmon confit melts in the mouth, and is savoury without too many flavours to overpower the delicate taste of the fish.

Topped with coriander pesto and fish eggs, with disks of rice and charred onions, the dish offers a range of flavours and textures that make it original despite its simple premise.

Bruyns was inspired to make a confit to preserve the integrity of the salmon. The technique, traditionally used with duck, sees the fish cooked slowly in oil to tenderise it without overcooking. It’s an old method, used to preserve meat before refrigerators, according to Bruyns, but it’s easy to see why it’s still used today.

“Confit is not an aggressive way of cooking, so it’s not breaking down the protein and the collagen,” he says. “I love salmon but I really don’t like seared salmon; it’s too full and ripe and rich. Confit has the texture of being cooked, and more the flavour and idea of being raw.”

While the salmon is accompanied by charred onions and rice to give it a Khmer feel, the preparation draws on French and modernist techniques.

The onions are first prepared sous vide – poached in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag with lemongrass, salt and sugar – then charred on a hot pan to add extra flavour.

The rice is presented in sliced disks rather than the typical helping. Mushroom jelly, shiitake mushrooms and vegetables add more flavours to the mix, making them more than just “sides.”

“What I like to do is to reinforce, reinforce,” Bruyns says of the complex tastes idominate the dish.

To someone unfamiliar with haute cuisine, his rich descriptions of the different layers of flavour make him sound like an artist – an element re-enforced by his exquisite presentation.

Chef: Thuon Nara   Restaurant: Feel Good Cooking School

Chef: Thuon Nara
Feel Good Cooking School
Dish: Chhay Kreoung Trey

Cambodian chef Thuon Nara’s contribution to AsiaLIFE’s cook-off wins marks as the most traditional Khmer dish, from recipe to preparation to plate.

He’s taken the best his country has to offer with his chhay kreoung trey, stir-fried fish with lemongrass paste, red and green peppers and pea eggplant. While his cooking is delicious, the real treat is watching Thuon cook, which replicates an energetic TV cooking show because he is in fact a teacher. He runs Feel Good Cooking School on Street 136, which offers private and group classes in Cambodian cooking.

Thuon’s also not afraid to use old fashioned techniques: his two main tools are a very sharp knife and an extra-large mortar and pestle that he uses to grind the ingredients for the lemongrass paste. Everything is cooked together on a single gas burner, which makes his stir-fried fish seem the most accessible and replicable.

The result is sweeter than most Khmer dishes catered towards Westerners, thanks to the addition of sugar to the lemongrass sauce, but it is balanced by the fish, rice and vegetables combined. It’s a great meal, although the pea eggplant is a minor downside. They add a bitter taste and, while popular in Thailand, seem to be more of an acquired taste for a beginner.

The “home-style” of Thuon’s cooking comes from his training – at home in his Battambang village. “I have not taken a cookery course, but I learned from my grandmother,” he says. “She cooked for many years.” He continued his practical training in Phnom Penh establishments, such as Feel Good Cafe, where he worked as a cook before launching his cooking school.

While his cooking style is perhaps the most conservative of the contenders, sticking to traditional Cambodian methods and recipes, it’s still the product of cultural exploration.To learn new cooking methods, Thuon prefers to hire villagers from across Cambodia to teach him how to cook provincial specialities and other local favourites.

“I go to the countryside looking for other dishes, because I want to learn from the countryside people to see what’s going on, what they’re doing there,” he says. “Home cooking sometimes is really full of flavour. Even a restaurant chef can’t cook that.”

Tasting his entry, it’s clear there is something to be said for the best of Cambodian home-style cooking. It’s light years better than some local restaurants, but it’s perhaps the one thing that can’t be bought in fine dining. Unless you’re cooking with Thuon, you’ll need to find yourself an invite from a friend or coworker. 

hef: Amy Baard  Restaurant: Chinese House

Chef: Amy Baard
Chinese House
Fish Amok Cannelloni

At age 25, South African chef Amy Baard is the wunderkind of Phnom Penh fine dining as the executive chef of Chinese House.

Despite her relative youth compared to other executive chefs, Baard has already managed to rack up several years of professional experience working in Asia, which has greatly influenced her bold

cooking style.

Baard studied at the same cooking school in South Africa as The Tiger’s Eye’s Bruyns, but her travels seem to have taught her just as much as any course.

“I’ve been travelling in Southeast Asia for the last six years. I started in Vietnam, then Thailand, now here,” she says. “So I use a lot of the techniques I learned travelling, and the spices, the flavours.”

Baard’s AsiaLIFE cook-off entry is a twist on the famous Cambodian dish, fish amok – a thick and creamy curry with fish – served up in a cannelloni, a pasta that resembles a single large piece of penne.

“I tried to make Asian flavours with Western technique and style,” she says of her amok-pasta combination.

It’s delicious but is best when combined with the sides and extras, and this is where Baard’s originality as a chef shines, along with her dedication to using local produce. The sides, for example, come decorated with an edible petal garnish, grown in a flower patch on the grounds of Chinese House.

Side bites include a plump river prawn, grilled perfectly with lime, salt, pepper and garlic. Alas, there was only one. There’s also an interesting cauliflower and carrot puree combination, which tastes as good as it looks.

The whole thing is lightened up with soybeans, fresh mango and cucumber topped by a chill lime sauce. Everything goes together perfectly, especially when all the ingredients are skewered on a single forkful.

The only regret? Baard’s cook-off entry was eaten at midday, as it would have gone well with a cold glass of white wine or two.

Chef: Albert Schaaf   Restaurant: Black Bambu

Chef: Albert Schaaf
Black Bambu
Dish: Caramelised Mekong Catfish in Tamarind Sauce

American chef Albert Schaaf is a long-time Phnom Penh resident, who’s taken a meandering route to become Black Bambu’s executive chef.

After a long hiatus from the kitchen, which saw him run Sharky Bar and start Fatboy Sub & Sandwiches, he returned to fine dining in recent years, first at Exchange and now Black Bambu. While he hasn’t spent his entire time in Cambodia cooking, he has clearly picked up a knowledge of Khmer food and its regional variations.

Schaaf’s entry is a caramelised Mekong catfish in a peppery tamarind sauce, served with fresh rice noodles, pickled jackfruit and smoked bacon.

If it sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it’s based on a classic Khmer Krom recipe from southern Cambodia, near Vietnam. “It’s a take on a trey kho Mekong Delta sort of style,” explains Schaaf, “With the black pepper fish sauce and caramel flavour.”

The fish is stewed in the sauce to give it a nice exterior texture and flavour. The sauce is then reduced to make it thicker before being drizzled atop the fish. It makes for some rich flavours that pull the whole meal together.

The addition of bacon and the few odd bits of pork rinds is initially a bit confusing. Sure, it tastes good but was this a little Southern influence mixed in with Khmer food? – Schaaf went to culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina.

The answer is, in short, no. It is a modern take on a popular Cambodian combination. “I put the smoked bacon in because there’s a lot of Khmer food that does pork combined with fish, like prahok. To me it seemed appropriate,” he says.

This is Schaaf’s goal as a chef: updating classics with a fine dining twist at Black Bambu. In some cases they may be Khmer classics, but also well-known dishes from across Asia and the West. “It was exciting to be able to really be able to think about things and come up with different dishes,” he says of his current menu at Black Bambu.

“I wanted to put together things that were familiar but a little bit different. There’s nothing really crazy,” he adds.

This perspective can be seen in his cook-off entry. The Mekong catfish isn’t “crazy” but it’s still delicious and feels fresh and original in its own right.