Phnom Penh is the place to appease the palate with a range of restaurants to sample the offerings of fusion Khmer cuisine. For AsiaLIFE’s third annual cook-off, we challenge four of the country’s chefs to create a main course infused with local flair in under 10 minutes. Our four chefs rose to the challenge, each creating a quick, easy and sumptuous dish that showcases the versatility of local produce. Words by Marissa Carruthers and Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Charles Fox.

Third annual cook-off. For AsiaLIFE’s third annual cook-off, we challenge four of the country’s chefs to create a main course in under 10 minutes

Chef: Luu Meng, Malis
Dish: Crab and young bamboo soup

Seasoned Cambodian chef, Luu Meng, picks up a meaty crab, its tied pincers twitching. He turns it upside down and slams a knife through its heart with a crunch. “That’s how you kill a crab,” he says.

He sets it aside to peel the nobly skin off a local courgette, and chops giant red chilies, baby sweet corn, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and an aromatic array of local herbs. “What makes Cambodian cuisine stand out from Thai or Vietnamese is its subtle use of spices,” Meng says, adding the way to make it less spicy is by removing the seeds.

Returning to the star of the show, he unties the crab and pulls off the shell before washing the crustacean. He twists off the legs and reaches for a machete to crack the shell of the claws. He tosses the chopped up crab into a sizzling pan and adds seasoning in the form of Cambodian cuisine staple – prahok. He cooks the crabs for a couple of minutes and sets it aside to start work on the broth.

The chopped vegetables are thrown into a pan, vegetable stock is added and brought to the boil, with the chilies added last to curb the kick. After a couple of minutes, the crab is added, along with a splash of fish sauce, dash of pepper and healthy handful of herbs, including sa-om.

After about three minutes, Meng dips a spoon into the cream-coloured liquid to taste, smiles, and adds, “Yes,” – an indicator that the meal is ready.

Served with boiled rice, the creation is a delight, offering a twist in the addition of rich crab to the traditional dish. “I wanted to show what can be done with local ingredients in just 10 minutes,” says Meng, who has made it his mission to bring local cuisine into the mainstream.

Third annual cook-off. For AsiaLIFE’s third annual cook-off, we challenge four of the country’s chefs to create a main course in under 10 minutesBorn into a family of cooks, Meng picked up his passion from his mother, who owned a streetside restaurant in Phnom Penh. But it was while attending hotel school in Thailand that he decided to dedicate his career to reviving Cambodian cooking, which had almost been wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.

His journey has been a success, and the proof is in the pudding – or soup. The soft crabmeat is infused with the subtle spice of the chili, the citrus of the sa-om and woody taste of the mushrooms. The baby corn adds sweetness, and the bamboo a soft crunch.

“The beauty of much Cambodian cooking is it uses fresh ingredients, and can be very healthy,” Meng says, placing the plate on the table. “A professional chef should think of himself as a doctor, looking after other’s health.”

Florian Lindener, FCC Restaurants Chef: Florian Lindener, FCC Restaurants
Dish: Steamed yellow snapper with water lily and Khmer basil oil

Chef Florian Lindener cooks with the precision of a surgeon. Armed with tweezers, easily accessible from a pocket on his left shoulder, he gently pares down Vietnamese herbs, yellow Khmer flowers and green watercress stalks with a light touch, as if a life hangs in the balance.

The delicate ingredients are in capable hands. Originally from Spain, the 27-year-old chef has been refining his skills for 11 years, and has worked in some of the world’s finest kitchens – from Spain’s Arzak to Singapore’s El Bulli – perfecting both classic and molecular cooking, before landing less than a year ago at the FCC.

Armed with experience, as well as a wide knife and small spatula, Lindener works to bring his Khmer-inspired dish to life. The majority of his attention is spent on the star of the show – the yellow snapper. After checking the two kilogram fish for freshness based on eye colour (clear) and gill colour (red), as well as scale texture (firm), he empties the blood and works methodically from head to tail to extract a neat 200-gram square.

Using a bamboo basket, it takes seven minutes to steam to perfection – the inside temperature should be 60 to 62 degrees Celsius and the meat shiny. “If you have a good fish, you have a good dish,” says the chef.

Florian Lindener, FCC Restaurants The plate’s thin stock is made from chopped onions, carrots, white turnips and celery, along with prawn heads and fish bones. These are cooked with water, blended and thickened. Garnishes of fresh watercress, flowers, heart-shaped herbs, Khmer basil and water lily stems – cut into long stalks or finely sliced into perfect light purple circles – are all left raw to retain their flavour.

Lindener’s finishing touch is a Khmer basil oil, spooned onto the steaming plate. “I try to find a simple way and have the best quality in product, texture, flavours, aromas and presentation,” he says. “First you see the dish, then you smell, then you taste.”

The finished product is spectacular, with greens and yellows offset by the orange sauce and white fish. “It’s very important to play with the colours,” says the Spaniard. The broth is light with a strong seafood flavour, and the fish’s meatiness is pleasantly offset by the fresh garnishes and the crunch of the water lily. “It’s simple,” he adds. “Everyone can cook that.”

Lindener may work surgically, but he tends not to take the work too seriously. “Every day you play with food,” he says. “It’s more like a game.”

Timothy Bruyns, Common Tiger Chef: Timothy Bruyns, Common Tiger
Dish: Pan seared sea bass with fresh rice noodle salad and som tam dressing

Looking at the five-star creation sitting before chef Timothy Bruyns, it’s hard to believe that 10 minutes earlier he had no idea what his dish was going to look like. “The last consideration is the aesthetics,” says the Common Tiger owner, plucking a few sprigs of fresh coriander from a tray and scattering them across the filet of sea bass.

Advocating the use of the senses when eating, Bruyns chooses his ingredients accordingly. The evidence sits in his salad: a simple yet creative dish that when deconstructed is an exquisite explosion of ingredients, flavours, colours, aromas and textures taking in some of the Kingdom’s finest products.

Leaving the skin on the fish – landed in Sihanoukville that morning – Bruyns covers it in a light dusting of rice flour to absorb moisture, helping to perfect that crisp bite. Leaving the fish to cook, Bruyns prepares the som tam dressing. Local garlic cloves, chopped red chilies and a handful of dried prawns are tossed into a hefty stone pestle and mortar, and then pounded into a paste.

Timothy Bruyns, Common Tiger To create the sweet, salty and sour kick that the sauce is famous for, palm sugar is added, along with freshly squeezed lime juice and peanuts. “It’s now a balancing act,” the South African chef says, sampling the sauce from a spoon. “It will be too sweet or salty make it.”

Next up is the salad, and Bruyns starts with water lily stem – a deep lilac, hollow cylinder – cutting it into stalks. Long beans are cut to the same size and blanched to soften the bite and bring out the green, which sits in contrast to the purple of the lily.   

He then finely slices banana blossom before setting to work on chopping the thick, white banana heart – or stem, a common ingredient in Cambodian soups and salads. “This is really great because it is good at absorbing flavour,” he says.

Returning to the fish, Bruyns crushes garlic cloves and throws them in the pan, squeezing fresh lime over the sea bass to add extra zing.

The final step is the plating, which the chef does with precision, with each layer adding a new fusion of flavour. The result is a feast for both the eyes and the palette, with a lip-smacking combination of tastes and textures that packs a punch and ensures each bite is unique, from the softness of the fish and noodles to the crisp stem and banana heart, and crunch of the nuts. 

“Cambodia is packed full of amazing ingredients,” Bruyns says. “It’s all about experimenting and having fun.”

Erick Garcia Cruz, InterContinental Phnom PenhChef: Erick Garcia Cruz, InterContinental Phnom Penh
Dish: Mekong catfish ceviche

Executive sous chef Erick Garcia Cruz may have cooked around the world – in East Africa, Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia – but he always brings with him the flavours of his native Guatemala, fusing them with each location’s local ingredients.

Joining InterContinental Phnom Penh just three months ago, his challenge is to create Asian specialities with a Latin flair, and he seems to have landed firmly on his feet.

Staying true to his style of a modern approach playing on textures, Cruz grafts Cambodian elements into a Latin American specialty to create his signature Mekong catfish ceviche. “It’s easy to work with the ingredients here,” he says. “You can find everything fresh.”

Using two large knives and an oversized whisk as tools, Cruz sets about preparing the raw dish, starting with the vinaigrette. He combines unusual bedfellows of soy sauce, sesame oil and olive oil, before squeezing half a lemon and a lime into a glass bowl. He emulsifies the mix with fluid round motions of a large spoon, while adding sugar, finely chopped red chillies, long thin slices of red onion and local coriander. 

Erick Garcia Cruz, InterContinental Phnom PenhAfter allowing the vinaigrette to marinate briefly, Cruz cubes the filleted catfish – its freshness the secret to the dish – and adds it to the mix last, to avoid a colour change. The plate should be served as cold as possible to retain the flavour, according to Cruz, who includes an ice cube to compensate for room-temperature vegetables, then slight drops of oil and lemon to taste.

The finished product, poured delicately into a bowl, and topped with micro greens, combines the best of both worlds for a perfectly balanced dish. The catfish’s texture works well, providing firmness to each bite, and its strong flavour is complemented by infusions of sesame and chili. Even the raw onions are kept in check, by the addition of citrus, giving a welcome crunch to the light and moreish offering.

A chef since 2005, Cruz’s passion for food originates from his mother, who is also a chef. “Since I was a kid, watching her cook, tasting the food, it made me realise this is what I want to do,” he says. Far from home himself, he aims to create a cosy dining environment. “Making a family feel they are at home,” he adds.

“It’s interesting how you can pair different ingredients, and come up with new flavours,” says the chef. “That’s what keeps me going.”