Over savoury samosa, tasty tandoori chicken, buttery naan and more, Matt Surrusco spoke with the owner of Sher-e-Punjab about how one of Phnom Penh’s favourite Indian restaurants came to be. Photography by Enric Català.
Sher-e-Punjab, an Indian restaurant well-known to those living in Phnom Penh, has been in business for 15 years, and was opened almost by chance.
Owner Rajkumar Bhujel, from Nepal, first came to Cambodia in 2002 from Singapore, where he was working in a similar restaurant for about a year until he was unable to renew his visa and decided to try his luck in the Kingdom.
“It was a difficult time,” Bhujel says of his start in Phnom Penh. For a month, he worked as a moto driver just to survive. He then returned to Nepal to save money before heading back to Phnom Penh and opening Sher-e-Punjab in 2003 with $1,000.
Today, Bhujel owns three other Indian restaurants with different names across the capital. While his staff has grown from two to more than 70 people at his eateries, Bhujel says he has remained committed to serving quality food. And he has done so with the help of the same Indian chef at Sher-e-Punjab since it started, the same local purveyors of chicken, fish and vegetables, and the same supplier of rice, lentils and spices, which are shipped from India every three to four months.
The restaurant’s consistency and the variety of spices used in Indian cooking has helped Bhujel craft a menu of more than 200 dishes, mostly from northern India.
We started with the vegetable samosa (four pieces for $3), a savoury, deep-fried delight. Potatoes, peas and a mix of spices are sautéed before being stuffed inside a dumpling, wrapped up and fried. Bhujel recommends a green mint and yoghurt sauce, or red tamarind sauce for dipping.
Next, the tandoori chicken ($5.50) consists of four pieces of tender chicken cooked on skewers over a tandoor charcoal oven, marinated with ginger, garlic, lime juice and yoghurt and seasoned well. Served with a spicy, shredded cabbage and carrot slaw, the grilled-in flavour of the chicken was second only to the next dish we tasted: the chicken tikka masala ($6).
The boneless chicken is lathered in a sweet, spicy tomato gravy, which is delicious whether coating the chunks of chicken or being scooped up with a piece of buttery garlic ($1.50) or cheese naan ($2.50).
The daal tadka ($3), a yellow lentil curry with ginger, garlic, chili and a fried, mealy flavour, also paired well with naan or yellow basmati rice ($1.75) and had me going back for third helpings.
The palak paneer ($4), however, was not my favourite dish, but perhaps creamy spinach and cottage cheese is just not for me.
On the other hand, the mango lassi ($2), a smoothie of fresh mango, yoghurt and ice, was frosty, refreshing and sweet.
At Sher-e-Punjab, a cosy, welcoming restaurant, dining with a group and ordering a few dishes to share is recommended. The Indian food and menu variety are among the best in Phnom Penh. Go and taste for yourself.