Daniel Riegler takes a trip to Takhmao to meet Randal Laurence, the man behind an innovative farm that is bringing micro greens to Phnom Penh plates. Photography by Charles Fox.

To the pleasant surprise of chefs all over town, micro greens have started to quite literally sprout up in Phnom Penh. A company called New Leaf Micro Greens, the brainchild of Australian expat Randal Laurence, has been ushering in a new era for Cambodian garnishes since August.

The greens, as the name implies, are smaller, younger versions of their larger and more mature selves, almost always cut within two weeks of planting, but often sooner. Though some varieties work better than others, the types of seeds and vegetables are the same as those used for full-sized plants including radishes, salad leaves and morning glory.

Not to be confused with sprouts — typically grown hydroponically, a technique which can foster bacteria such as E. Coli — micro greens are considered to be a healthier, if not more efficient, source of nutrients than their mature cousins. A study by the University of Maryland Department of Nutrition and Food Science found that micro greens “possessed higher nutritional densities” than mature leaves.

Such concentration is not limited to nutritional content. The primary appeal of micro greens is the intense flavour, texture and colour that they add to a dish. “It’s the confetti on the plate,” explains Laurence.  “But it’s more than that: they’re bursting with flavour, that’s why chefs love them.”

Chefs seem to appreciate the difference. Micro green lore attributes the early success of the concept to legendary United States chef Charlie Trotter, who was looking for a better plating option than normal lettuce.

Working closely with The Chef’s Garden — now one of the premier suppliers in the US — on the concept, Trotter sparked a trend that caught on quickly and has grown over the last 15 to 20 years. That close relationship between chef and grower has been maintained as popularity spread globally, and Cambodia is no exception.

Laurence got his start by approaching chefs to find out what was missing locally. The answer that came back was simple: micro greens. Starting with the bare essentials, New Leaf now delivers six varieties of radish, cabbage and morning glory daily, though they are continuously experimenting with new products from amaranth leaves to rosemary and carrots.

“It’s a balancing act, between what works here and what the chefs want,” says Laurence, who makes deliveries personally to ensure quality and get feedback.

Still, his most popular product is a mix of each leaf produced. “Everything is 100 percent organic,” he notes.

Word is getting around about Laurence’s products, with top kitchens in Phnom Penh and some in Siem Reap incorporating them into their menus.

One of the earliest adopters and proponents of New Leaf was Steve Van Remoortel, executive chef of Raffles Le Royale, where micro greens feature in everything from buffets to dishes for the formal dining room.

“I’ll pair them with a grilled rib-eye. The nutty flavour and spice really complement the fattiness of the beef,” notes Remoortel, who is adding a micro green-only salad to a new à la carte menu based on its popularity.  “The quality is good, it has great colour and crunch and the organic aspect is very important in Asia,” he adds.

The New Leaf farm occupies a modest but serene plot in suburban Takhmao, with a vibe more akin to a back garden than a commercial operation. A visit on a breezy March morning finds a handful of staff diligently watering and checking on multiple batches, each in its own stage of mini harvest.

“One of the tricks is getting the right pieces to grow at the same pace,” says Laurence, who cuts each batch by hand with scissors before carefully washing and drying to avoid damaging the delicate leaves. “These never touch the ground.”

Upon tasting the final product, it is clear that the small doses pack punch. A sprig of tatsoi, from the mustard family, has a wasabi like flavour that lingers for several minutes. The radish leaves pack a similarly fresh bite.

The operation is not without its problems. Laurence had to bring in a consultant to deal with soil issues such as mould and it took time to get things right.  The solution they came up with was to bake it. “Every morning we cook 5kg of soil,” says Laurence.

Soil is in fact wok fried, à la bai cha, in a large metal cauldron along with a practised blend of rice husk and manure, but Laurence notes that this practice could be problematic as they continue to expand. Getting the best quality seeds is also key. Most are imported from New Zealand but at significant cost.

Still, Laurence is not one to cut corners. “My dream is for chefs to be calling me up saying ‘I want these greens’, but now we have to focus on maintaining this standard of quality.”