My Romdeng friends

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Cambodian foodMy 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.

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Sok Socheat, sous chef at Romdeng, supervised my day in the kitchen. Sao Sokunthy, Friends staffer, translated.

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.

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Romdeng team meetings are held under giant umbrellas in the garden.
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In late May, the monsoon season was approaching. Anticipating a downpour, the team moved the tables set up for a large party from the terrace to the main dining room.
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While I helped serve up noodles, preparations for a busy Saturday evening eddied all around. Banana leaves were cut to size and the evening’s service roster updated.
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Kitchen staff checked their whiteboard for the latest specials and take notes.
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Servers prepared fresh mosquito coils to put under the tables outside.
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I was delighted to join the young chefs and servers for dinner at the staff table. As we enjoyed our bowls of beefy noodles, several of the students practiced their English.

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!

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After the staff dinner, every member of staff signed my copy of the Romdeng cookbook.
The frontispiece of the Romdeng cookbook shows the Phnom Penh and the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
The frontispiece of the Romdeng cookbook shows the Phnom Penh and the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Some inscriptions in my copy of Spiders to Water Lilies:
“Food was lovely and I am happy to see you learn Khmer food.”
“I hope everything is going great with you.”
“I wish all the best to all of you!”
“I love you.”

 

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.

For his view of the day, take a look at photographer Tom Fakler’s post on the Fridge Whisperer.

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