Keen cook and Kampot native Kek Soon is following her passion as she gears up to publish a cookbook and food and culture tour, as well as take part in culinary-related sessions at this year’s Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (KWRF). Words by Erin Hale. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Where did you learn to cook?
From a young age, I worked to support and help feed my family. First this was doing jobs like cleaning the fishing boats. [Later] I also worked around the farmlands and forests near Kampot doing the same kind of thing, odd jobs, collecting money, food and at the end of the day, cooking for my family. My mum was often away working in other provinces. Later Mum found me an employer in Malaysia. I worked for nearly eight years as a maid in Malaysia. This is not uncommon work for young women from Kampot, many work in Malaysia, but I was especially lucky to have a great family to work with. They allowed me time to take courses and learn skills in cooking and baking. My employer was also a business lady who opened the first chain of Nando’s [the international chicken fastfood chain] in Malaysia, I learnt a lot from this time, including improving my languages Khmer, Chinese, Malay and English.
What’s your favourite kind of food to cook?
If you’re talking about Malaysian food, I love laksa. In Cambodian food, I love barbecuing; marinating different things with herbs and spices that Cambodia has is tasty. Kampot food [seafood] is very good for barbecuing because you’re near the sea so everything is fresh.
Tell me about your cookbook project?
We want it to be finished this year and after we’re done with the writer’s festival, we will start on the cook book. The cookbook will focus mainly on. Kampot cuisine. I have things like Chinese, Malaysian and Cambodian original food. So they are all a little bit different and the food looks traditional but it tastes different.
Are the recipes based on traditional cooking?
No, all the food that I cook I just make it up or have learned it from my family. The bamboo pork is my great grandmother’s recipe that she cooks twice a year. We cook it from generation to generation.
How did the project start?
I joined Julien Poulson and Billy McCartney after they opened a bar in the ground floor area at KAMA, a beautiful old French building three doors up from Ellie’s cafe [in Kampot]. At this time, I would come at night and cook Sino-Khmer (Chinese-Cambodian) meals. Billy took great photos of all my dishes, which to me were typical Kampot food that I love to cook and usually cook for my family. Julien saw the photos and told me that we should produce a cookbook so I added my own stories to the food pictures and the recipes. It soon became more about myself, growing up in Kampot and about the food, history and culture.
I heard the cookbook got delayed. What happened?
Around the time I started planning the book, Julien and Wayne McCallum were talking about establishing KWRF and we thought I could release my book project there. However, I joined the organising team and become busy learning how to stage and manage the festival, and worked with sponsor Janet De Neefe to cater a banquet for KWRF. This work caught the attention of Lara Dunston, of Grandtourismo, who invited me to join a gourmet food tour of hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap and Battambang. This was great because Lara’s a travel writer and she taught me more about story-telling and food photography. This opportunity led to me opening a new cafe Kek Soon’s Kitchen at KAMA and Kek Soon’s Kampot Cuisine Tours.
What other recipes will be in your book?
Besides the bamboo pork, I have a recipe for fish steamed or fried. I also have a tofu soup with black seaweed. That’s really, really tasty, so vegans, Chinese or Western people can make it with or without meat and cook the same thing. There will be about 30 recipes in the book. I will also include lots of drinks and tea because I make my own tea here myself. So the book has a lemongrass and ginger tea recipe, which is very good for you and your body.
Where can people try your tea in Kampot?
They can come to my restaurant at KAMA, because everything here I do is fresh. I’ve been working on more different things, like a coconut, cinnamon stick, and honey tea that’s really good for you. In the future we will put them in a package to sell to everybody.
What’s happening with your food tour?
I am planning a Kampot cuisine tour and want to include a cooking class for Cambodian cuisine, or Chinese or vegan food. Since I’m based in Kampot, I also want to take foreigners to see the countryside and how people are living in Cambodia and Kampot. I haven’t [formally] started yet, but I have already had two groups of people ask me to take them around Kampot and have a cooking class. They loved it very much. One husband and wife were vegan and they just wanted to try vegan food, so they had the cooking class and wrote down everything.
Find out more about Soon’s work at KWRF, which takes place in Phnom Penh and Kampot between Nov. 2 and 7. Visit Kampot Writers and Readers Festival on Facebook for more information.