My last full day in Cambodia was one for the scrapbook, as the young women and men of Phnom Penh’s Romdeng restaurant welcomed me into their kitchen for an afternoon “tending wok”. The restaurant has been a leader in the revival of traditional cuisine in the capitol. During two months in the country, I enjoyed several meals at Romdeng, and each time came away inspired by intriguing flavors and spice combinations.
Gustav Auer, co-author of Spiders to Water Lilies, a book of recipes from Romdeng’s Khmer kitchen, had invited me to help prepare the staff’s Saturday evening dinner. It would be a rousing pot of Khor Sach Ko, Cambodian comfort food.
I chopped carrots and radishes, and crushed lemongrass under the friendly supervision of sous chef Sok Socheat. With the translation assistance of colleague Sao Sokunthy, he pointed out useful techniques (fire-roasted Romdeng, er galangal, anyone?) and corrected my hapless stirring of the enormous wok’s contents–dig deep, scrape up the best bits…I know, I know, but I was wrangling a very big spoon, and enough beef to feed a crowd!
One of several of training restaurants run by Friends-International, Romdeng is housed in a classy colonial villa in central Phnom Penh. There is ample seating in the garden, and in spacious rooms indoors. Art by the kids from Mith Samlanh, the highly regarded NGO that began as a Friends project, line the walls.
At 5:00pm, it was time for dinner together at the staff table on a side patio of the restaurant. “I am very happy to eat noodles with you,” said one staffer, shy with his English. My heart melted.
“What do you think of Cambodian food?” asked another. One guess as to my answer!
At Romdeng, I learned how to make a simple dish prepared in Cambodian home kitchens, but took away so much more than a recipe. My new Romdeng friends are key to Cambodia’s culinary future, and if my meals there–and day in the kitchen–are an indication, it is a bright one.