For our inaugural Cambodian cook-off, AsiaLIFE Cambodia challenged four leading Phnom Penh-based chefs to showcase their skill and creativity. The rules are simple. Each chef has $10 to spend at local markets to create two dishes — one main course and either an entrée or dessert. The only caveat is that each course must showcase an ingredient associated with Cambodia, in order to celebrate the Kingdom’s prime produce. Our crack team of judges provide comments on each of the dishes, leaving you — our readers — to judge who was the most successful. Words by Ellie Dyer and Daniel Riegler. Photography by Conor Wall and Dylan Walker.

In the pristine kitchen at Raffles Hotel, executive chef Steve Van Remoortel layers one element of his starter — sea bass sashimi rolled in amaranth leaves — carefully onto a small plate. Not quite satisfied with its appearance, he takes the dish apart and starts again, searching for the perfect composition.

Such attention to detail is evident in the finished entrée: sea bass prepared in three ways. A dish of ceviche is a riot of bright colour, with lime and orange zest mixed with the flesh of Cambodia’s sour krasang fruit in order to cook the raw fish.

On another plate, purple and green amaranth-wrapped sushi lies on a bed of white radish, with bright wasabi at the side. One dish further, a precarious tower of potato and sea bass, smoked on site, is topped with a creamy foam. “I really enjoy working with the vegetables here… I went quite heavy on those ingredients,” says the Belgian chef, who moved to Cambodia last year.

When planning his menu, Van Remoortel decided to keep costs low while upping the creativity factor. To attain the desired results, the chef got started on his dishes early. The pork belly main had to be cooked sous vide for 30 hours — spiced with Kaffir lime, Kampot pepper, lemongrass and star anise — before being served.

“Put it all in the bag together with the raw pork, 68 degrees and 30 hours. And is it tender?” he asks, as one of the AsiaLIFE judge slices through the meat and mutters “wow”.

“Pork can be a little bit dead and heavy sometimes or dry. We don’t want to have any of that — so that’s why we used lemongrass, the star anise. Garlic and chilli is just to uplift the flavour, the rest is to smooth it out,” he explains.

The chef also used flavour to maximum effect in the bok choy puree and buttery mushrooms placed underneath the pork. Van Remoortel strained all the juices from the watery bok choy to retain a clear, intense taste, while using more vegetables to create added texture with a bright purple beetroot foam and sweet potato crisps.

“I’ve worked with a lot of spices and herbs to highlight this local produce,” explains Van Remoortel. “The flavours are very Asian I believe, but the dish is completely western.”

Van Remoortel does sea bass three ways without ever touching a stove. The first is smoked, albeit briefly, to give a hint of a bite while maintaining an almost delicate flavour. The creaminess of the mustardy potato salad on which it is served offsets the mild intensity of the fish. The chef spikes sashimi with wasabi and wraps it in amaranth leaves, lending the dish a slight nuttiness. The almost rice paper like amaranth texture contrasts with the paper-thin sliced fish inside. Krasang, the sour citrus fruit, adds to a mellow ceviche, with the included seeds giving a bit of crunch. It is not overly acidic, allowing the flavour of the fish to stand out. Pork belly is fork tender after the 30 hour sous-vide bath. The cooking process renders most of the fat off, but the flavour remains and star anise comes through for a slightly sweet finish. A puree concentrates the bok choy’s flavour and makes for a much more pleasing form in which to eat the vegetable.

Local ingredients are key to chef Luu Meng’s cooking. Nearly every component of his two dishes has been grown or cultivated in Cambodia, with the finished results resembling a master class in the Kingdom’s cuisine.

“The important thing is we use local [produce],” explains Luu, as he sizzles scallops in an open-air kitchen at Malis restaurant in Phnom Penh. “Firstly, it’s to promote the farmers. I think it’s really big for us to have our local agriculture.”

Luu favours Cambodian produce, but going local can mean that ingredients vary from similar products imported from abroad.

Local salt is often wetter than commercially-produced foreign versions, he says, demonstrating the point by crushing crystals with a knife. The Sihanoukville scallops that are the main ingredient in his starter are more fragile, yet more flavourful, than imported counterparts, according to the chef.

“But it’s important not to overcook,” he says, carefully turning the shellfish over after a 30-second fry on one side, before tossing together a zingy banana flower salad with light prahok dressing for his entrée. “Our main ingredient is to get fresh herb flavours, with a bit of lemon, palm sugar, so it is well balanced with the sauce.”

The main course also features Cambodian produce, with sour green tamarind forming a major component of the dish. The bright green tamarind sauce accompanies fried river fish fillets, with red curry sauce carefully layered on one side.

“Fish always likes to have a bit of lemony [flavour], and tamarind comes with sourness,” says Luu Meng. “The tamarind when you eat alone, it’s too sour, so add palm sugar, garlic, chilli and a bit of fish sauce, pepper.”

For Meng, Cambodian cuisine is constantly evolving. “I’m trying to keep it more a living cuisine,” he says, after carefully cleaning the plate on which his vibrant main dish lies. “That means Cambodian cuisine is not the past, but today. Today means local ingredients plus what is current — technology of equipment.”

Fish on fish is the rule with Luu Meng, with his local scallops lightly seared with fish sauce. They are briny and bold, served on top of a prahok and chilli-dressed banana flower salad. The flavours are intense but not overpowering and the dish is well balanced around an ocean theme. River fish is given a similar treatment with the addition of pepper and red curry. It has a milder flavour with a very subtle kick and is paired with a bright, in your face green tamarind slaw. Luu counters the sourness with a bit of prahok and palm sugar, it hits all taste points and brings an incredible sense of freshness to the dish.

Despite living a long way from her native South America, Tepui chef Gisela Salazar Golding believes that food should make you feel as if you’re at home.

“At least for me, I always like to have dishes that when you eat it you feel you are eating home-made or mum’s food,” the 29-year-old explains, speaking within the distinctly Asian-inspired dining room of The Chinese House on riverside.

For the AsiaLIFE challenge, Golding turned to a familiar Asian favourite, seafood, and gave it a uniquely Venezuelan flavour by preparing it in two different ways. The show-stopping starter is a flash-fried Mekong lobster head accompanied by cress salad and tamarind chutney.

The talented cook first discovered the joys of lobster heads while experimenting with the Central Market-bought crustaceans for a French Chamber of Commerce dinner last year. “Some people say everything in the kitchen is [already] invented. I think it’s not true. For sure, there are new tastes and new things to discover,” she says.

Despite its creativity, the succulent entrée remains in keeping with Golding’s roots. It’s a messy dish that involves diners ripping apart the lobster and slurping the meat and juices inside. “My dad also does this, he takes the shrimp and sucks the head,” she says.

With the majority of her budget used for the expensive lobster, the meaty body is also a core ingredient of her main course, which is a clever take on a traditional South American soup. Chupe — a milky soup produced in Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru — is given an Asian twist with the use of lobster, coconut milk, lemongrass and bok choy.

“My mum made it for lunch as a main course. It’s like a whole meal,” she says, emphasising that the extra ingredients were chosen to highlight, rather than overpower, the lobster for a light meal. “They give it more freshness. It changes a lot — it’s a completely different soup.”

The lobster head battered in cornmeal and flash-fried is slightly daunting. It takes a fair bit of sucking, shell cracking and nimble fingering to pick out every last edible morsel. It may be more pleasurable to partake in than witness, but rest assured, no finger will go un-licked. The quick frying process seals in the juices. The meat is sweet and rich and streaked with molten ganglia (the lobster equivalent of brain). The intense saltiness of the cornmeal batter is offset by sweet tamarind chutney, while the side salad dressed in a kaffir lime concoction provides a subtle sour tang.

For the chupe, Golding created a rich stock from the lobster heads which she then combined with coconut cream. The result is chowder-like, but the coconut does not sit heavy like a traditional chowder or bisque and there is a distinct chilli and Kampot pepper induced heat. The Mekong lobsters may lack the meatiness of their Western cousins but they do not want for flavour.

Tastes and flavours can form memories that last long after a dish is consumed — a phenomenon that Phnom Penh’s Sofitel Hotel executive chef Sakal Phoeung is well aware of. Having left Cambodia as a child, only to return in 2008, the talented French-trained chef has rediscovered some of the flavours of his youth.

“When I try any kind of food in Asia and Cambodia, I can feel and find food that I’ve tasted before. I don’t remember the food, but I remember the taste,” he says, noting that it is especially the case for fruits and vegetables. “It’s important for cooking, but also a pleasure to remember the connection.”

The chef’s cook-off dishes echo his roots. Thanks to his European culinary training, Phoeung utilises the western-style techniques he honed in French kitchens but, in keeping with the brief, the core components of his dishes are Asian — local sea bass, river clams, baby octopus and mango.

White fish is steamed with lemongrass and topped with a buttery sauce for the main. Decorated with plump green beans and vegetables, the elegantly presented dish resembles an art work. “For this, I wanted to combine local products with western cuisine techniques. Of course, I could do the same recipe but [put the] steamed fish with prahok sauce,” he says.

As the centrepiece of his dessert, he chose mango — a tropical fruit that he has appreciated since childhood. It is caramelised in a pan with butter and sugar, before being served with a dollop of coconut ice cream, a medley of tropical fruits, balsamic sauce, mint and a crumble.

With different textures and flavours able to excite the judges’ palates, a factor that according to Phoeung is an important part of cuisine, he calls the fruity extravaganza “100 percent local.”

The local sea bass fillet, steamed with a healthy dollop of butter, has a rich, fleshy texture. Large clams and tender baby octopus are simmered in a briny seafood stock. A butter emulsion, ginger and lemongrass give the sauce a light finish. The mango, served warm, has the texture of crème brûlée — burnt sugar outside, almost custard-like within. It contrasts brilliantly against the cool ice cream. Faint scatterings of breadcrumbs keep the textures interesting. The whole thing is laced with a balsamic reduction for a subtle but noticeable acidic tang .