Chef Rotanak Ros has opened up her quaint home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as part of her mission to revive and reinvent the ancient art of Cambodian cuisine. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Lim Sokchanlina.
The sound of traditional music rings through the air from two musicians performing on a nearby balcony. Chef Rotanak Ros – affectionately called Chef Nak – emerges from the spacious kitchen that neighbours an open-air terrace, where a group of 10 guests are about to be taken on a delectable exploration of Cambodian cuisine.
During the next three hours, a five-course meal cooked, served and eaten in Nak’s traditional wooden home that sits close to the banks of the Mekong River about 8km from Phnom Penh, is devoured. Each course comes with its own story, with Nak refining and reinventing dishes from her childhood, carefully cradling tradition along the way.
Her face lights up as she recites memories of her grandmother cooking up fragrant chicken curries or munching on shrimp cakes – her favourite snack – on her way home from school. “I want to share the taste of Cambodian home cooking with the world,” she says, before returning to the kitchen to put the finishing touches to the next course.
Giving a modern twist to the fine-dining concept, Nak, who cooks from the heart with infectious passion, has created an eating experience that sheds away the stuffiness of a top-class restaurant while injecting a dose of luxury into home cooking.
The self-taught chef started honing her skills when she worked as an administrator for Cambodian Living Arts. Inspired by the organisation’s pledge to preserve, promote and push forward the traditional arts scene, she decided she wanted to do the same with Cambodian cuisine, elevating its status locally and globally.
She opened up the doors of her stunning stilted wooden home, complete with tropical gardens and a swimming pool, to cater to private CLA gatherings. In October, Nak officially opened Mahope by Rotanak to the public, with the aim of serving the finest Cambodian food in an authentic home setting.
“Everything I cook is inspired by what I buy fresh that morning at the market,” she says. “I try to show the differences in Cambodian cooking, from stir-fry and grill, to soups and salad, and sweet, sour and savoury. A lot of the food I put on the table has a story relating to me; something I remember from my childhood. These are sometimes sweet memories but sometimes quite bitter because life was up and down.”
Despite being born into a foodie family, growing up in the wake of the Khmer Rouge meant life was tough, and food was considered a necessity rather than a luxury to get creative with.
“My parents were young during the Khmer Rouge and didn’t receive a proper education,” she recalls. “They had to do hard labour and were away from home a lot, so we ate whatever my mum could think to cook for us the night before. I got sick of eating the same thing so started to make my own food.”
As she grew up, Nak noted the number of traditional Cambodian dishes were dwindling – and rapidly. “Cuisine is an art form, and like other traditional Cambodian art forms, Khmer cooking is in danger of dying,” she says. “I feel it’s my responsibility to protect and preserve it.”
And Mahope is the latest step in her mission to rekindle national pride in Cambodian cuisine, while elevating it to the international levels of recognition neighbouring Thai and Vietnamese cuisines have gained.
“In Cambodia, we pass traditions on from old to young generations orally and a lot of things aren’t written down,” she says. “It’s the same with Cambodian cuisine. I know if we don’t rush to do it now then there won’t be enough time. I know the secret keepers of these recipes are the ones who are living in villages across Cambodia.”
In a bid to preserve the country’s cooking culture, Nak is visiting villages across the country to collect age-old recipes from elders. “I need to find those who still have knowledge of what they remember eating when they were young, especially before the Khmer Rouge,” she says, noting it is a race against time.
To date she has more than 100 recipes she is compiling, with the ultimate aim of creating a cookery book. And in a bid to inspire Cambodians to take pride in their cuisine, she is also sharing them on her website, along with posting videos demonstrating how to cook up tasty Cambodian meals.
Another factor Nak says has contributed to Cambodian cuisine’s demise is urbanisation, with an increasing number of the young generation moving to the capital or other urban centres, where they lead busy lives, often juggling work and study and have little time to spend in the kitchen.
“Cambodia is putting on a new face for the future confidently, and national pride stemming from food also forms part of this,” she adds. “I want to bring modernism to traditional recipes. My aspiration is that in two years Cambodians living in the city will be cooking what I call urbanised traditional Cambodian food.”
To help achieve this, Nak is creating a series of YouTube posts showing how to cook up quick and easy creative Cambodian dishes that still have their roots steeped in tradition in 20-minutes.
“I want to educate people, both Cambodian and foreigners, about the food here and the incredible ingredients and traditions,” she says. “I want to inspire people to not just eat mindfully but cook mindfully as well. Cambodian food has a rightful place in the world.”