In AsiaLIFE’s second annual cook-off, we challenge five of Phnom Penh’s best to make a creative dish that celebrates Cambodia’s local ingredients. The twist: it must be a dessert. With chefs, pastry experts and bakers all pitting their sugar skills against each other, here is what they dreamt up. Words by Ellie Dyer and Marissa Carruthers, photographs by Charles Fox.

Cambodian Cook Off 2013Executive chef Song Teng
Cambodiana Hotel

With Kampong Speu tomato, pandan leaf, coconut, avocado, pineapple and banana among the local products used in Song Teng’s beautifully-presented tasting plate of mouth-watering desserts, it’s clear the talented executive chef of the Cambodiana Hotel is proud of his country’s produce.

The highly-respected chef, who first cooked for Cambodia’s Royal family in 1992 and continues to do so today, even picked green gooseberries straight from the garden to top one element of his dish: a coconut filled with juicy tropical fruit, flambéed in Grand Marnier liqueur and topped with a sabayon sauce.

Beside it on the plate, which resembles an artist’s palette thanks to bright swirls of caramel, mint and strawberry sauces, lies a delicate layered tower of filo pastry, crème patisserie and sweet banana. Next along the line is a perfect mound of delicately-flavoured avocado and agar mixed with coconut milk and a touch of pandan leaf — a traditional ingredient often used to flavour rice.

In the final pièce de résistance, the chef has sweetened a hollowed-out red tomato in syrup before filling it with a warm Christmasy fruit and nut medley, topped off with a ball of vanilla ice cream and a dash of mint sauce for a cooling, fresh finish. “People may say I’m crazy. I don’t mind — this is my style,” Song Teng says of combining a tomato into a dessert.

Having previously worked with the Accor group, Song Teng’s creative dish has touches of French technique, from the tall flames that almost licked the kitchen’s roof (and our photographer’s camera) when he flambéed a pan of tropical fruit, to the creamy sabayon sauce that combines eggs, sugar and Grand Marnier.

Yet, with the addition of a touch of coconut juice, he gives the sabayon, like the rest of his ingredients, an Asian lift — combining international flavours and styles to create something new and unique. “I just create my own thing,” he says. “When we have all this fruit, you can do anything.”

Cambodian Cook Off 2013
Sem Sichan & Ann Bopha

With sugary teapots sprinkled in edible glitter and vibrant lime polka-dots spread throughout its interior, the indulgent cake dreamed up by Bloom is a case study in the fun and fabulous.

The brain-child of the bakery’s production manager, Sem Sichan, and assistant production manager, Ann Bopha, the adapted layered pound cake celebrates both Cambodia’s local limes and coconuts as well as the friendly atmosphere of their workplace.

“Everybody likes to drink coconuts … and we want to do something special for Cambodia,” says Sichan, who coordinated the cake’s spring-like colours with a rounded motif that echoes its key ingredients. “The tea pots and the cups are because of friends and all the customers who come in and love cupcakes and drink coffee and tea and have fun.”

Bloom’s cake, which took two days to create, is a riot of colour and taste. The cream cheese icing is laden with lime zest, creating a delightful sour tang that contrasts with the sweet, moist coconut cake, containing both coconut milk and a desiccated version of the nut.
Spheres of zingy lime cake dot the cake’s heart, though how they got there is a trade secret, and edible tea cups totter around the exterior for an added sugar rush.

“I love my job so much,” adds Sichan, while staring at the finished creation in a quiet corner of Bloom café, where mountains of cupcakes have created a sugar lover’s paradise.

Yet creating imaginative cakes to order can be a complicated process. For a typical cake, Bopha and Sichan think up a concept after talking to the customer, and draw a diagram showing each cake’s composition and theme.

The illustrations are passed to the bakery and the sugar workers, who create the cakes and edible decorations. Both skills-sets are then brought together in the final creations, which have in the past included designer handbags, Chinese checker boards and jewellery boxes.

“They are artists,” adds Ruth Larwill, Bloom’s director and founder. “I love the concept because that’s what life is about, those happy moments. Dessert is about those special times together.”

Cambodian Cook Off 2013 AsiaLIFE
Executive Chef Craig Napper
Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra

Chef Craig Napper still remembers his first encounter with the infamous “king of fruits,” better known as durian. At the tender age of 20, the Australian had gone to a Chinese restaurant when an unfamiliar whiff struck his nose. “I didn’t like it all. I hated the smell,” he recalls.

Napper was persuaded by his friend, a fellow chef, to try the fruit after an experimental meal that involved tucking into a dish of chicken’s feet. Years later, and now firmly entrenched in Asia as the executive chef at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, he has learned to appreciate its controversial tang.

“It’s beautiful and very good for you,” he says, presenting a spectacular Durian Bombe Alaska to the AsiaLIFE team. The dessert is a towering vision that binds together seemingly contrasting flavours — salt, caramel and Cambodia’s infamous durian — into a single dish.

A durian ice cream, coated with delicate icicles of light Swiss meringue, sits on top of a slice of moist caramel mud cake containing hints of white chocolate. The tips of the meringue have been doused in brandy and set alight with a blow torch, while swirls of rich caramel sauce surround the plate along with bite-sized pieces of salted caramel popcorn.

“For me, it’s Asian meets French elegance,” says Napper as the fruit’s distinctive scent wafts over the table once the dramatic bombe has been cut into two, revealing its durian-laced interior.

The chef has worked hard to mellow the fruit’s distinctive smell, toning it down by combining just 350 grams of durian into a litre of creamy ice cream. “If you make it a lot more dominant, the durian may overwhelm the palate,” Napper says. “You just want that subtle, nice flavour.”

The dense cake and crunchy popcorn add new dimensions to the dish, as does the contrast between the soft meringue and chilled ice cream, all ensuring that even durian haters could be converted to its distinctive taste. “When you play with desserts or food, always look at your textures,” explains the experienced chef, who is a self-confessed dessert fan. “You’ve got to have your soft and your firm.”

AsiaLIFE Cambodia Cook Off 2013

Chef Timothy Bruyns
The Common Tiger

Slices of glistening jackfruit cut through the peanut butter powder scattered over creamy balls of yoghurt panna cotta. Delicate dollops of yoghurt and lime-leaf purée ornately decorate the plate; the thin peanut and dehydrated yoghurt and mint crisps protruding from them adding an extra dimension to the dish.

“Everybody has heard of mango, passion fruit and watermelon but I rarely hear of jackfruit being used, and you can do so much with it,” says Timothy Bruyns, owner and chef at The Common Tiger. “I wanted to showcase that.”

The 32-year-old South African has given the common jackfruit a modern twist, by compressing it with lime, star anise, cinnamon and vanilla, while combining in traditional flavours such as peanut and lime to create a pudding alive with flavours.

The result is a fusion of textures: the creamy richness of the panna cotta, the cool rush of the jackfruit and the sharp crunch of the crisps. Sweet and sour hits of mint, peanut, jackfruit and lime creep up separately with each bite, before coming together with a punch at the end.

Putting an emphasis on using food as a form of self-expression, Bruyns’ dishes are full of textures and subtle fusions of flavours. “My Dad and Gran are amazing cooks, and the other side of my family are amazing artists,” he says. “I can’t draw so it’s through food that I found my self-expression.”

And as well as showcasing jackfruit, Bruyns is keen to promote locally-made produce, such as the yoghurt sourced from Garden Center Café on Street 57. “There are some people out there who are making some things in this country that have value and good quality,” he says. “In terms of the standards of this yoghurt, it could be made anywhere in the world. It’s amazing.”

AsiaLIFE Cambodia Cook Off 2013

Pastry Chef Christophe Le Cardinal
La Patisserie

The chocolate mousse is surprisingly light and wispy, melting like little clouds of heaven on the tongue. Home-made whipped Chantilly cream adds a refreshing kick of pepper, lemon and ginger to the equation, complimenting rich scoops of mango sorbet and mango and passionfruit compote, topped off with a beautifully-crafted swirl of crunchy speculoos biscuit.

“I wanted to create a real fusion of flavours using a lot of local elements,” says Christophe Le Cardinal, owner of La Patisserie.”There are so many good ingredients grown locally here in Cambodia and I don’t think people realise this,” he adds, putting the finishing touches to his masterpiece, which includes traditional fruits combined with Kampot pepper, Kampot honey and palm sugar.

Using a creative combination of cream, brown, green and orange shades, Le Cardinal’s dessert gets top marks in the visual stakes. With delicate drops of purée drizzled around the dish, it looks truly indulgent. But one bite reveals a fusion of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy.

“I wanted to play with the textures and tastes and put together elements that you wouldn’t expect. I wanted to experiment and show how versatile these ingredients really can be,” says the French pastry chef, who counts La Residence restaurant as one of his clients.

Despite the dish taking almost two hours to create, Le Cardinal says the recipe for the chocolate mousse, mango and passionfruit compote with Chantilly and mango sorbet is in fact simple, and can easily be adapted to be made at home, or experimented with to create new dishes.

“There are many uses for all of these ingredients and there is no reason why you can’t play with them at home to see what you like,” he says.