NGO Friends-International has launched a new restaurant in the tourist hub of Siem Reap. Writer Nicky McGavin investigates its fresh take on Cambodian cuisine.

Walking into Marum’s contemporary garden in Siem Reap, visitors will likely be welcomed by smartly turned out training staff. The sweet touch sets the tone for the evening but is also a reminder that, aside from the food, the restaurant is there to develop young trainees.

Marum Siem Reap is Friends-International’s fifth restaurant in Cambodia and Laos, and has been created with the aim of graduating disadvantaged young adults into stable employment within the region’s growing hospitality sector.

Since its first restaurant opened a decade ago, Friends has developed a reputation for turning out fresh and creative food. Marum Siem Reap clearly intends to be no exception. For those who know its sister restaurants in Phnom Penh, the approach is familiar.

“It’s half-way between them,” says Gustav Auer, Friends’ hospitality training coordinator. “The dishes are Cambodian-inspired like Romdeng, but many are prepared tapas style like Friends The Restaurant”.

Among the offerings are some favourites from Marum’s forebears, including Romdeng’s guilt-free chicken and lotus root salad ($6.25) and an addictive smoked eggplant dip ($3.25) from Friends. Cambodian ingredients are key to the menu, which proves modern and inventive while keeping an eye on its roots.

“Even though it hasn’t been codified yet, Cambodian cuisine stands perfectly well by itself and you can be incredibly creative with it,” says Auer. “When we first started looking for ideas [for Friends The Restaurant], we went out into the countryside and discovered a huge world of inspiration. And I’m sure there are many more dishes out there that we haven’t found yet.”

“We are lucky too that our chef, Vann Chanrith, grew up in a household with no sisters. The boys had to do the cooking, and were quite competitive, which is how he learned that this is what he loved to do,” he adds. “He’s got a real passion for the food and is wonderfully creative.”

Auer points to the fish amok as an example of taking a traditional dish and giving it a unique twist. “Everyone has a different way of doing it, wherever you go. So we also have our own style and serve it in bamboo ($6.50).” Those looking for something a little different could try the steamed seafood dim sum served with an amok sauce ($5.75).

Nothing defines Cambodian food more than freshness, and it is another principle that resonates throughout the menu. Prime examples include the stir-fried cuttlefish with spicy basil, lemongrass and chilli ($6). Even the barbequed spare ribs will leave diners feeling refreshed after tasting the accompanying apple and radish salad ($5.50).

The restaurant aims to do more than help safeguard the futures of 35 students each year. The profits are set to be invested into Friends-International projects in Siem Reap, which currently work with 2,000 children and young adults as well as their families and communities.