Searching for a taste of Tokyo, Ellie Dyer goes sushi mad at Wasabi Japanese Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Photography by Conor Wall.

The eye-watering potency of wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, is well known. When ground up into a vibrant green paste it adds a nose-burning zing to the clean, clear flavours typical of Japanese sushi and sashimi.

The Cambodian version of Wasabi is, however, a well-appointed restaurant off Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. Featuring a small wooden bridge over a zen-like fish pond, diners can get a taste of the Orient as soon as they walk through the door.

The calm may not last long, as the eatery is a frenzy of activity. A line of chefs can be found hard at work, carefully wrapping seaweed, rice and raw fish at the sushi station located in the restaurant’s centre. Waitresses carry towering piles of fresh salmon and king prawns to diners sitting in both the secluded red leather and dark wood booths, as well as the eatery’s many screened private rooms.

For those unfamiliar with the cuisine, Wasabi’s buffet option ($18.99 per person) is a good place to start. Though the price reflects the relatively high price typical of Japanese food in the capital, it is no ordinary deal. Diners can order as many fresh dishes from the buffet menu as desired, with orders electronically transmitted to the kitchen and sushi station via phone.

Taking on the challenge, we start with sushi options accompanied by towering piles of wasabi paste. Raw Norwegian salmon is put to good use in a variety of dishes. It is drenched in vinegar for a Japanese-style ceviche, and thinly sliced in a simple sashimi dish that highlights its natural flavours.

Given the price, the raw tuna that also features in numerous dishes is not the high-grade found at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, but is nevertheless well placed in a spicy maki roll, slathered in a hot chilli sauce. Add some wasabi, and it packs serious punch.

A stand-out dish is the Katsu Karé. Despite being on the buffet menu, it is a meal in itself. Potatoes and onions are drenched in a mild, yet rich, curry sauce that comes with rice and a breaded pork fillet. The meat adds satisfying crunch to the dish, which is a warming staple in Japan.

Soba noodles, softened in a cold broth for a minute or two, are also satisfying. The shredded seaweed adds a tasty, yet understated fishy flavour. The prawn tempura are generously sized and covered in a light batter that has a slight greasy edge. Dip them in the accompanying gingery sauce and gulp down a mouthful of hot sake for a potent mix.

For those who can manage, try and leave room a dessert —pancake ice cream. A deliciously bitter green tea ice cream comes wrapped in a thick pancake cover. As the waitress pours a pot of flaming sauce over the dish, it becomes clear that Wasabi is not the only fiery dish on the menu.

Overall, Wasabi may not offer the top-grade ingredients of elite Tokyo cuisine, but it’s undoubtedly good value for money and a solid option in Phnom Penh’s rapidly expanding Japanese food scene.

Wasabi Japanese Restaurant,
49-153E Street 169,
Phnom Penh.