Phnom Penh is seeing an influx of healthy food restaurants, but with raw, vegan and paleo on the table, it can be hard to navigate to the right plate. Writer Joanna Mayhew provides a guide to the growing offerings. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
The blue-accented and light-walled café, where raw apple pie, horchata and cold-press juices are advertised on a shabby chic chalkboard, would be at home in any of the world’s trendiest cities encompassing hipster hangouts and the latest culinary crazes. The only hint that it is instead in the Kingdom is a wooden Buddha carving –but that too would be considered hip in the likes of London, Melbourne or Portland.
This is Artillery café, where, in many ways, the city’s wholesome food fad began. Offering healthy homemade cuisine, the eatery opened three years ago, and has since expanded to a second location, launched a farm-to-table model restaurant, and, most recently, started a third outlet in Siem Reap. The café’s popularity is emblematic of Phnom Penh’s growing appetite for healthy offerings, from the numerous juice shops popping up to outlets now catering to niche diets.
As the first, Artillery has set the bar high – focusing on locally and sustainably sourced produce so customers can trust the food is clean. “Being healthy is about the quality of ingredients,” says owner and managing director Brittany Sims, who has created links with organic or chemical-free farmers and imported superfoods.
The outlet offers raw vegan dishes, a trend using only fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, none of which are cooked or processed. The claimed benefits are that raw food preserves the living enzymes, thus giving additional nutrition and aiding digestion. Artillery also provides juice detoxes, to flush the body and lose weight, as well as a food cleanse that adds raw food, allowing people to have more energy compared with an exclusive juice option.
But more than vegan, Artillery aims to provide a range of choices. This stems from Sims own experience, when 15 years ago she became extremely sick, only to eventually realise the underlying reason was dietary and an intolerance for certain foods. She says it took years of experimenting to arrive at a tailored diet that fits her needs. “Having lifestyle options is important, because everybody’s trying to find what works for them,” says Sims. “My passion is to make that available.”
On the new end of the palate is popular Backyard Cafe, specialising in raw and gluten-free foods. The understated, minimalistic space saves its colour for the plates, offering power-packed quinoa bowls and a smattering of sugar-free desserts that look too good to be truly good for you, such as the chocolate and salted caramel tart.
“We strongly believe there should be a connection between where your food comes from, how it is prepared, and how it makes you feel,” says owner Maria Ahlberg, who hired a nutrition specialist to add professional expertise to the menu. Ahlberg says she welcomes what she sees as growing competition in the city. “The more healthier choices, the better. It would be my dream to have a health-inspired community of businesses in this city.”
Backyard makes everything in-house, from pickles to coconut yogurt, and offers fitness packages, as well as juice cleanses using a hydraulic press that retains five times more nutrients than any other juicer on offer, Ahlberg claims. The outlet also aims to supply many foods normally not available in country, through the store’s popular wholefoods section – its shelves lined with organic buckwheat, chia seeds, bee pollen, natural teas and almond butter.
For those craving something more filling, Kettlebell Cafe takes a fitness-oriented approach to food, providing fuel for those with active lifestyles. Attached to CrossFit Amatak gym, the cosy, tile-walled café offers different paleo-inspired lunches, which can be delivered via weekly meal plans, as well as breakfasts, dinners and coffees.
“The food was conceptualised to complement the high-intensity workouts we’re doing in the gym,” says owner and partner Corbett Hix, who started the café to address a gap in the market, where people often have to choose between being healthy and hungry or unhealthy and full. Kettlebell’s meals are typically 60 percent vegetable, 40 percent protein. “We’re very much niche,” says Hix. “I don’t push the paleo, but 90 percent of what we serve [fits] within that diet.”
Paleo, the most recent global fad, focuses on wholefoods by cutting grains, rice and pasta, as well as sugar and processed foods. As a result, people can shed weight and are less lethargic and more alert, claims Hix. Regardless of exercise, the majority of body-change results come from food choices, he adds. He recommends people cook more at home, but in a city where eating out is common, he hopes the cafe provides a second go-to. “We can be your alternative, trustworthy kitchen.”
Given the success of current ventures, others are sure to follow. But experts recommend taking food fads with a grain of salt. “All nutrition claims should be approached with skepticism, including paleo. See what works for you,” says Hix. “We’re prescribing you eat real food, moderate portions, and work your ass off.”