Writer Joanna Mayhew and photographer Conor Wall delve into the capital’s original vegan restaurant.
With a fresh location, a budding vegan lunchbox programme, new homemade products and an evolving menu, K’NYAY shows no signs of slowing after six years as a Phnom Penh staple.
Named after the Khmer word for ginger, the restaurant has defined itself by doing traditional food differently. At the time of its launch, few true vegetarian, let alone vegan, restaurants existed.
“As a vegan myself, I found it quite difficult to eat [in Phnom Penh] to start off with,” says David Hunt, who founded the eatery with two Cambodian colleagues. “Things like fish sauce go in so many things, prahok goes in things. It’s all the hidden things that you wouldn’t necessarily know.”
The restaurant has brought a mix of Khmer and vegan dishes to the capital, with some plates also available with meat if requested by diners. Traditional dishes have, however, required adaptation to meet vegan standards. Egg is normally mixed into an amok ($5) in order to set the steamed curry, but can be instead thickened with a combination of soymilk, coconut cream and flour.
“Customers that have come in, especially Cambodians, didn’t think that you could have tasty food without meat or prahok in there,” Hunt says, explaining that the restaurant serves its own hand-sorted wild rice blend rather than standard white grains.
The impressive dessert and drink menus also adhere to veganism, and at no sacrifice to taste. A delectably rich and moist chocolate cake ($3) is bound together using banana instead of egg and served with dairy-free coconut ginger ice cream, garnished with mint.
In October, K’NYAY relocated to The Terrace on 95 guesthouse, a colonial-style building with high ceilings and light green walls. Housed on the first floor, the airy restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere, with deep couches and decorations that include exaggerated birdcages, paper lanterns and a pink and blue painting of Buddha.
“For me, I’ve sort of gone full circle,” says Hunt, who stayed at the same guesthouse location when he arrived from the UK to work in education eight years ago. It was there that he met the two friends who would launch K’NYAY with him. “This is where it started, and to come back here just felt right.”
Since moving, K’NYAY has started selling homemade soymilk ($0.50/500ml) and launched daily vegan lunchboxes on a two-week rotation. The meals ($4/day) are delivered in small, three-tier stainless steel tiffin containers and wrapped in black and white krama-print bags. The menu includes thoughtfully paired offerings, like a beetroot, chickpea and pomelo salad.
“I think you’ve got to very much do it because it’s what you love doing,” Hunt says.