The raw food movement has reached Cambodia. Ellie Dyer gets into the kitchen to explore the diet, with photography by Rudi Towiro.
As soon as the crank begins to turn, pretty spaghetti-like strings of courgette twirl out of the Artillery café’s spiraliser. Minutes later, a sweet potato and a carrot have been milled in the machine, transformed from chunky vegetables into colourful threads that will help form a vegan, gluten-free pad thai.
Soon café owner Brittany Sims blitzes up soaked organic cashew nuts with water, straining the liquid through a mesh to produce a creamy milk. In another corner of the compact kitchen sits a dehydrator, used to dry vegetables at low temperatures.
“The raw food diet is all whole, natural foods,” the American expat explains, demonstrating just some of the techniques that the café uses to prepare dishes for its regular five-day raw food cleanse.
“For example to sweeten a dessert we will use dried fruits like dates. To bring out flavours in salads we’ll use fresh herbs instead of heavy-based oils,” she adds, quickly whipping up a tasty dish of crunchy zucchini ‘noodles’ tossed in a homemade pesto and topped with dehydrated tomato.
Crunchy and light, the dish embodies the creative thinking being demonstrated by proponents of raw food in Cambodia.
Despite the fact that the diet, based on the concept that food can lose nutrients if exposed to temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius, remains a largely alien concept in the Kingdom, a small number of foreign chefs and business owners are offering tailored raw options to the public.
According to chef and nutritionist Emma Fountain, who runs retreats and raw food workshops at The Vine Retreat hotel in Kep, the benefits of eating an 80 percent raw diet can include increased energy, stabilised blood sugars, improved digestion, clearer skin and increased mental clarity.
“Eating ‘living’ foods and increasing the amount of fermented and pro-biotic foods into your diet helps strengthen and fortify the immune systems and protect the guts and intestine, which is especially important living somewhere like Cambodia,” she says.
But eating raw in Southeast Asia can have its challenges. Far from subsiding on salad leaves and carrot sticks alone, those in the know emphasise the importance of having a balanced and nutritious raw diet. That means including essential food groups like protein, contained in sources including nuts.
“One of the biggest challenges is sourcing certified organic [goods], especially the fruits and vegetables you are eating raw,” adds Fountain, explaining that finding organic oils and ‘superfoods’ in Cambodia can also be difficult and expensive, although outlets like Natural Garden on the capital’s Street 63 are now selling niche health-foods such as chia seeds and maca powder.
For those aiming to go raw, there is help at hand. The Vine Retreat runs a raw detox programme (one day of prior notice is needed), along with gluten-free and vegan cuisine and retreats.
Artillery, which has outlets on both Street 240 1/2 and Street 278, is adding more raw food to its regular menu and offers both a five-day raw cleanse ($175, with seven items delivered per day), beginning with a breakfast of fruit or vegetable juices, and a shorter raw reboot ($25 a day) option.
“The programme is designed for people who are just getting started, who maybe don’t know about raw foods or haven’t really dived in yet, because it’s a different texture and taste,” says Sims.
Most importantly, both venues are proving that going raw in the Kingdom doesn’t mean skimping on taste. Dehydrators can be used to create items like crackers, while nut milk can add a creamy texture to meals.
“Our raw sweetcorn taco with nut cheese, salsa and homemade sprouts is one of our most popular dishes with yoga retreat goers,” says Fountain, who also serves up a raw banoffee pie.
And for Sims, it seems the proof is in the pudding. Artillery’s raw key lime pie, with zingy lime and avocado nestled inside an almond, raisin and coconut oil base, is a decadent dessert and a must-try for any Cambodia-based foodie, whether they aim to go raw or not.
Think raw food is restrictive? Then surprise your taste buds with the following dishes, or try cooking up some of your own:
Try the raw pad thai with spirals of sweet potato and carrot covered in a fragrant curry sauce. Follow it with the excellent key lime pie, with a crunchy base topped off with creamy avocado and lime.
The Vine Retreat
For a main course, dig into a raw sweetcorn taco. Nut cheese, salsa and homemade sprouts make it a popular dish. For a sweet treat, sample the raw banoffee pie with coconut cream and dehydrated cinnamon bananas.