Knowing what you’re eating in the Kingdom can be hard, but it’s getting easier. Writer Jessica Tana speaks with three companies doing their best to source organic, locally grown and sustainable food. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

Ripening agents, preservatives, MSG – eating healthily can be a challenge in Cambodia, which has virtually no regulations on chemicals, and a high importation of produce. However it’s not impossible.

“The biggest problem sourcing vegetables is that the market is getting flooded with products coming from Vietnam and China,” says Emma Fountain, co-owner of 100 percent vegan restaurant, Vibe. “Take broccoli for example. It looks great sitting on the shelves, but it’s not grown here. I heard there is only one supplier, and it’s coming all the way from China.”

According to produce trade site Fresh Plaza, Cambodia imports between 200 and 400 tonnes of vegetables daily from Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Not only are Cambodian farmers losing out to international imports, but to keep fruit and vegetables from spoiling during transit, they are picked while under-ripe and then forced to ripen upon delivery through the use of chemicals called ripening agents.

“Organic has such a short shelf-life,” says Brittany Sims, owner of Farm to Table and director of Farm to Table Group. “So, a lot of produce you see at local markets has been harvested weeks beforehand, and the sellers are trying to keep it as fresh as possible. They inject, spray or soak fruit, vegetables, meat, fish. The markets in Cambodia are really unregulated.” 

Global food journal Agriculture and Food Security, reports that non-toxic ripening agents are relatively expensive and unlikely to be used in developing countries. Low cost chemicals, such as calcium carbide and ethephon are commonly used instead.

These chemicals create gases on contact with moisture, which have been known to cause dizziness, vomiting and skin ulcers. According to the report, a high consumption of the ripening agent ethylene glycol can cause kidney failure.

“It’s scary because it makes fruits and vegetables look fresh, but that’s not what you’re getting,” Sims says. “A lot of cucumbers and limes are soaked in a vat of chemicals. They look fresher, and it makes them heavier and juicier, but we are ingesting those chemicals.”

The higher the possibility of importation means the higher the risk of ripening agents needing to be used. So, if not from local markets, where can chemical-free, locally grown produce be found?

The Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA), founded in 2006, aims to promote farms and suppliers in Cambodia producing organic and pesticide-free produce. Members include Natural Garden and Happy Dragon Farms, both which have stores on Phnom Penh’s Street 63, and Discovery Farms, which supplies to restaurants, including Farm to Table. 

However, buying from local farms comes with its own set of  challenges, certain products will only be available when they are in season, and the cost of chemical-free produce can be much higher.

“Restaurants are often able to source these ingredients and provide a healthy meal, but it comes at a cost, since ingredients are expensive to bring in,” says Ginny Coleman, of Joma Bakery Café. “Expats often find it challenging to keep up with international food trends with limited availability of specialty items in our host country. While this is sometimes a fun challenge to embrace, it can also make it hard to eat as wholesome as one might like.”

A way to get around paying more for food items is to embrace what is in season. For meat and dairy, this is not possible, however, by following the seasons in Cambodia, it’s possible to eat fruit and vegetables when they are at their best.

“We want people to realise that what you see individuals selling on the street, the lady with a basket, or the man with a table set up in front of his house, is generally what is going to be in season now,” says Sims. “If its growing in the time, it’s supposed to be growing, then farmers don’t have to use extreme measures to produce it.”

During the wet season, it can be hard to source leafy greens and herbs, explains Sims. But pumpkins, Asian greens, Pursat oranges and longan fruit are available. During the cool, dry months everything is available. 

“It’s about changing your eating habits to suit where you are,” Sims says. “There is a growing demand for healthy, but it takes commitment.”