Siem Reap: 280 miles from the beach

The weather is starting to heat up again in Siem Reap and tourists are jettisoning their garments like snakes shedding their skins. Sartorial defiance is the order of the day as visitors stroll the streets of Siem Reap bare-chested or in bikini tops, oblivious to local mores or universal standards of good taste. They visit Angkor Wat in tube tops and short shorts, confident that the gods, spirits, and security guards will be honored by the sight of their underbutt.

Woman wearing a bikini in Siem Reap

Where’s the beach? Oh, just about 280 miles from here. Photo by Mr. Sam Rachna

Siem Reap is not a beach town (nor is Phnom Penh, for that matter). So it’s perplexing to see tourists wandering the streets of a city that’s a full 280 miles from the nearest seashore — there aren’t even any direct flights — shirtless or in swimming gear.

Cambodian culture values modesty. Khmer women generally keep their shoulders and knees covered, while most men wear long sleeve shirts and pants even on the hottest days. It’s true that Cambodian culture is (slowly) changing, and you’ll sometimes see young Cambodian women in sleeveless shirts. But for the most part, Cambodians dress modestly.

Now before you say, “But I saw a Cambodian man standing in front of his house with his shirt off!” remember that he was standing in front of his own house. The difference between public space and private space is often blurred in Cambodia, where people carry on their lives in full view of tourists. However, you’ll usually only see Cambodian men shirtless if they’re at home, farming, mentally ill, or acrobats at the circus. And you won’t see Cambodian women in bikini tops, even at the beach.

Topless dudes on Pub Street.

Topless dudes on Pub Street. Photo by Hanno Stamm.

Of course visitors aren’t necessarily expected to share Cambodian values. But they are expected to respect them. Skimpy clothes at tourist-oriented bars and clubs — places where no Cambodian grannies are likely to be traumatized by the sight of your pasty chest or butt cleavage — aren’t entirely unacceptable. Prancing around city streets in the equivalent of underwear is; such behavior shows a total lack of consideration for the locals and their culture. Even more blatantly disrespectful is wearing revealing clothing while visiting Angkor Wat, the largest and most revered religious monument in the country.

A recent spate of naked tourists in Cambodia is provoking a backlash. Several visitors have been deported for stripping down at the temples, and three others were kicked out for riding motos naked through Kampot. The Apsara Authority is sick of streakers and skimpy outfits and reportedly will be strictly enforcing dress codes for visitors to the temples starting April 1st.

Screenshot of a CNC tv show about scantily clad tourists

A CNC TV show about skimpily dressed tourists got a lot of attention in the local community.

A report on Cambodian television chastised tourists for dressing inappropriately. Photos from the piece were posted on Facebook and dozens of locals expressed their disgust with scantily clad tourists. One wrote, “Some tourists driving moto by themselves wearing underwear along the road in public. That make local residents feel unhappy with your culture bringing to Cambodia. I hope you understand well about the way of respect one’s local culture and custom. Respect a local culture and custom means you are respecting you yourself too!”

So show some respect for yourself, for your Cambodian hosts, and even for the expats who don’t want to see your sideboob. There are no beaches in Siem Reap, so keep your bikinis poolside and off the street. And, for the love of prahok, please cover your shoulders at the temples!

From forest to frontier: Interview with Jacob O. Gold about the Kuay People

Have you ever heard of Cambodia’s Kuay people? Me, neither, until now. The Kuay people are a stateless ethnic minority who have lived in Cambodia since before the time of the Angkorian Empire.

Move to Cambodia talks to Jacob O. Gold, an ethnographer who is working to record traditional Kuay language and culture before they are erased by habitat destruction and assimilation. Jacob, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has spent the last two summers studying the Kuay people, and he’s here to talk about their rich, interesting culture, as well as how you can help preserve it.

Kuay couple in Cambodia

A Kuay couple carrying forest goods on a homemade oxcart.

Who are the Kuay people?

Cambodia’s ethnic minority Kuay (sometimes spelled Kuy, and also known as Suay in Thailand, although another group go by a similar name) are a people with a long, fascinating history of both independence from, and interaction with, the Angkorian Empire and the Khmer kingdoms. The Kuay have only recently become the topic of academic research, thanks to the cessation of thirty years of conflict and the still-incomplete de-mining of Cambodia’s once heavily-forested Northern Plains region that encompasses parts of Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, and Kampong Thom provinces.

The Kuay people speak a language in the Katuic branch of the Mon-Khmer family. The Kuay subgroups and their closest ethnolinguistic relatives live in patches across a broad swatch of land encompassing northeastern Cambodia, the south of Thailand’s Isan region just across the border, as well as southern Laos and the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Kuay communities occupying forest habitats on the margins of successive Khmer states and likely supplied the Angkorian Empire and subsequent Phnom Penh kings with iron, elephants, and a wide range of botanical forest products. These goods were vital to the Khmer, but were also prized items for the Chinese mercantile networks spanning the region.

The Kuay people, from numerous indications, seem to have survived as a distinct yet “stateless” people owing precisely to this age-old ability to exchange and negotiate with the surrounding Khmer majority. Semi-intact Angkorian temples “hiding”— to borrow a term from Cambodia’s national anthem— in the greenery of the Preah Vihear Protected Forest and elsewhere in the region attest to the fact that Khmer settlements, inseparable from land cleared for wet-rice agriculture, have ebbed and flowed around the Kuay people over the centuries of the region’s political tides.

Today, the Kuay are adapting to the wet-rice regime with as much zeal as their new Khmer neighbors. They have probably had to do so before. Kuay lore is full of stories dealing with Kuay-Khmer relations and overcoming the asymmetries of power inherent in these interactions. My hypothesis is that during Angkorian times and possibly earlier, the ancient equivalent of the Khmer “bong thom” would establish a local fiefdom and tax the Kuay population in the form of gold, iron, elephants, valuable forest products and mercenaries with reputedly magic swords. In exchange, the Kuay say, they were granted autonomy and protection from the slave-raiding and outright displacement that menaced so many other forest peoples.

blind kuay spirit healer

A blind Kuay spirit healer displaying her family’s ancestral sword.

What are the current issues facing the Kuay people?

The new and improved accessibility of the region has come with a cost: convenience for logging, mining and rubber interests with the budgets, influence and machinery to exploit the land with great speed and intensity. In the wake of an ever-receding “tree line,” ambitious Khmer homesteaders are streaming into the region from all over the country in order to start new lives and found new villages on freshly-opened farmland.

Ethnographers like me are rushing to record the Kuay people’s language, customs, and forest-knowledge before generational turnover, cultural assimilation and habitat destruction change things forever.

How have you been received as a researcher by the Kuay communities with whom you work?

The Kuay, despite their reputation for fierce independence and privacy, were surprisingly eager to engage with me during my last two summers of fieldwork. I am not an activist who wants to drown out Kuay voices with the saviorist rhetoric of a barang bullhorn, but the Kuay themselves opened their homes and farms and forest paths to me, their spirit healers spoke to me, their old folks told all sorts of stories to me— not only about ancient battles, but also of surviving the American carpet-bombing of the Vietnam War era, Khmer Rouge raids, and fleeing from fierce combat in one of the most active theaters of the civil war that only ended in the mid-1990’s.

I feel that this openness comes from their own feeling that the past is becoming increasingly inaccessible to them, and as one of the only researchers out there with a digital recorder and notebook and camera and GPS gadgetry, I can help document the lived present and recounted past of the Kuay, as well as their unique repertoire of ethnobotanical knowledge. Hopefully I can figure out the best way to repay my karmic debts to these people—they will be the ones to tell me how.

Kuay traditional herbal healer

Jacob walking through the forest with a traditional herbal healer. The Kuay use well over a hundred botanical species for every imaginable purpose: medicine, incense, spirit offerings, handicrafts, and sustenance.

How can Move to Cambodia readers get involved?

In terms of my own research, I am hoping that this coverage will bring visitors and, with luck, backers to my Kickstarter campaign for a third season of fieldwork that will be crucial for taking my project to the level needed to bring in the big dissertation grants I will be applying for next year. At that point I will no longer hit you good folks up for a few of your hard-earned riel as I continue to share my findings, hypotheses, and fieldwork yarns with a wider audience than I can reach inside academia’s ivory tower.

I will be putting up new short video content to replace what’s up there soon. My goal is to raise $3,000 dollars, and I am almost at 50% of that with almost half the fundraising time to go. Any sort of donation would be hugely appreciated and there are goodies available to backers as well. Here is the link to my Kickstarter page.

In addition, simply googling key phrases such as “Kuay people” and “Prey Lang” (the general term for their endangered forest-at-large) will guide readers to various groups working to ensure Kuay cultural survival, but as a social scientist I’m not comfortable affiliating myself with these groups or giving an outright endorsement to their agendas and strategies, even though our general goals may overlap. Nevertheless, some of these groups are doing important work.

Jacob Gold is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He can be reached at jgold3@uic.edu, and you can help fund his research on Kickstarter.

Recipes from the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen: Coconut panna cotta with turmeric-braised pineapple

Since it opened three years ago, Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap has become a critically acclaimed culinary institution, attracting patrons from all over the world. Many consider it the mecca for modern Cambodian cuisine, and they’ve just been honored by being named one of the 50 best restaurants in Asia.

This is the last of five posts from Steven, who spent time working in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen, covering a five-course menu and describing some of the techniques and flavor combinations that Chef Joannès Rivière uses to such brilliant effect. Chef Rivière’s recipes have inspired a legion of chefs in Cambodia, both local and foreign. He has graciously supplied some simple recipes and cooking tips to inspire your kitchen, too.

dessert at Cuisine Wat Damnak

Coconut panna cotta and sorbet with turmeric-braised pineapple at Cuisine Wat Damnak.

We’ve reached the last course of our five-course menu from Cuisine Wat Damnak, and that means it’s time for dessert! For this recipe Chef Rivière applies his pastry training to some local ingredients to create a light, fruity dessert that will fit nicely at the end of any meal. The panna cotta and the sorbet provide an indulgent base and the pineapple and turmeric mix, braised in white wine, adds a tartness that beautifully balances the overall flavor. The slight hint of turmeric gives added dimension to this simple and classic dessert.

Coconut panna cotta and sorbet with turmeric-braised pineapple

For the panna cotta:
250-ml can coconut milk
125 g sugar
1 cup toasted coconut
3 sheets leaf gelatin
500 ml heavy cream
4 pineapples
1 thumb of turmeric, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon honey
Half a bottle white wine (preferably Sauvignon Blanc)

For the sorbet (see Chef’s Notes):
3 kg fresh coconut cream/water
200 g sugar
50 g glucose powder (see Chef’s Notes)
1 sheet leaf gelatin
200 g water

  1. Prepare the panna cotta: Put the gelatin leaves into cold water to soften. Meanwhile, boil the can of coconut milk with the sugar and toasted coconut. Leave to infuse for 5 minutes, then strain out the solids. Squeeze the gelatin dry, then whisk it into the hot strained liquid.
  2. Allow this coconut base to cool until it reaches room temperature.
  3. Whip the cream until soft-to-firm peaks form and fold gently into the coconut base. Pour into individual glasses or cups and refrigerate.
  4. Prepare the pineapples: Skin and core the pineapples and chop into small chunks. Place in a pan with the grated turmeric, honey, and white wine. Boil for 15 minutes, allowing the liquid to reduce by about half. Set aside to cool, then refrigerate.
  5. Place the coconut water in a plastic container and refrigerate. The cream will rise to the top. Skim off the cream with a ladle and keep chilled in a separate container. There should be about a liter of coconut cream.
  6. Prepare an ice bath by putting ice and water in a bowl. Take a smaller metal bowl that will fit inside the ice bath and place it in the freezer.
  7. Put the sugar, glucose, leaf of gelatin, and 200 g water in a pan. Bring to a boil and mix in the coconut cream. Bring the mixture up to a maximum of 65 Celsius (use a candy thermometer to measure).
  8. Remove the metal bowl from the freezer. Pour the coconut cream mixture into it. Place the bowl in the ice bath and whisk the coconut mixture until cool. Blend the mixture with a hand blender, then refrigerate until completely chilled.
  9. Once the mixture is chilled, it is ready to go into your ice-cream maker. (See Chef’s Notes.)
  10. To assemble, spoon some of the pineapple mixture on top of the individual servings of panna cotta. Top with a scoop of the sorbet and serve.
Joannès Rivière in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen

Chef Joannès Rivière chillin’ in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen.

Chef’s Notes

This dessert can be prepared well in advance; the panna cotta and the pineapple mixture will keep in the fridge for several days and the sorbet will keep in the freezer for even longer.

It’s important to use glucose in making the sorbet, as it will stop the mixture from crystallizing and freezing too hard.

If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, but you do have a sturdy food processor, you can make the sorbet as follows, starting the day before you plan to serve it: Put the coconut cream mixture from step 7 in the freezer and allow it to freeze halfway, then mix it up with a fork. Leave it to freeze overnight. The next day, chill the bowl of your food processor in the freezer. Chop up the frozen sorbet mixture, then place it into the cold food-processor bowl and blend until smooth. However, your processor should be good and strong in order to accomplish this. If you do not have access to either an ice-cream maker or a sufficiently powerful food processor, buy coconut sorbet or ice cream instead.

Psar Cha in Siem Reap

Cooking up a storm at Siem Reap’s Psar Cha.

A note about Cambodian cooking

Rivière points out that Cambodian cooking, and indeed South East Asian cooking generally, is by no means an exact science. The recipes he has provided feature all of the ingredients you will need and the techniques required to execute the dishes, but the exact amounts used will depend on your taste.

Use the ingredients sensibly and taste as you go. Masses of sugar will obviously make a dish too sweet, while not enough fish sauce may leave the dish bland and underseasoned.

The more you cook a cuisine the more accustomed you become to the basics involved. Certain ingredients come up again and again and you will learn what they do and how to use them properly. We have tried to be as clear as possible in the presentation of these recipes, but they all require you to just roll up your sleeves and give them a go.

If you’re in Siem Reap, be sure to make a reservation at Chef Rivière’s restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak. The restaurant will be closed from March 29 to May 4, so make your reservation now!

The best Phnom Penh gay bars

Phnom Penh has a happening gay scene that’s very inclusive. No matter how you identify, a night out at one of Phnom Penh’s gay and queer bars is a recipe for fun. Drag and cabaret shows are all the rage in Cambodia, and you’ll find them at many of the gay bars on the weekends. Some of the acts may leave you scratching your head in confusion, but others feature accomplished performers in outrageous gear. There are also a few gay-oriented clubs in town as well. Our favorites are below.

 Gay night "Shameless" every Thursday at Pontoon.

Gay night “Shameless” every Thursday at Pontoon.

Space Hair Salon and Bar is more than just the sum of its parts, it’s a unique combination of cool Cambodian hair salon and gay bar that attracts a mixed crowd of gays, straights, women, and adorable dogs (seriously). Owned by a Spanish-Cambodian couple, Space Bar is known for their relaxed vibe, handsome waiters, cheap beer, and strict policy of no money-boys. You can also get your hair done while enjoying a drink and the tunes, which are a mix of fun dance tunes, Cambodian pop, and gay standards.

Blue Chilli is practically a Phnom Penh institution at this point, having opened in 2006, which is an eternity in Cambodia years. Popular with foreign expats, tourists and local talent, Blue Chili is a popular spot for the gay crowd to meet new friends and make merry. It’s also popular with the local money-boys who come from far and wide to hang out here. Blue Chilli is open every night of the week, but they’re best known for their excellent and outlandish weekend drag shows. Not to be missed, the shows are at 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Get there early for the best views.

Rainbow Bar is a friendly and relaxed gay bar on Street 136, not far from other gay hotspots Feel Good coffeeshop and Space Hair Salon and Bar. They they bill themselves as a gay-but-straight-friendly bar, and the owners and staff are welcoming to everyone. Cocktails are very good and inexpensive and the draft beer is cold. They’ve got “Dudes and Divas” drag shows Tuesday through Saturday nights, and happy hour from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. every day.

Cambodian-owned 2 Colors is a small and friendly gay bar on Street 13. They have drag shows featuring outlandish costumes and big smiles three nights a week on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday that start at 10:30 p.m. Don’t be surprised if you see some of the performers from Blue Chilli, who find themselves performing all over town. They’ve got daily happy hour specials, right now it’s buy two get one free for all mixed drinks and cocktails.

In the club world, “Shameless” every Thursday nights at Pontoon promise a live drag show and wild entertainment, and attract a mostly local crowd who stay and dance all night to the tech house soundtrack. Run by indomitable expat Marcus Marvels, the night is always a guaranteed good time. Doors open at 9:00 p.m. but the place doesn’t kick off until much later. Cabaret show starts at 1:00 a.m.

The other Phnom Penh club heavyweight, Heart of Darkness, is not technically a gay bar, but in recent years has start to swing that way and most nights are an unofficially gay night. So if you’re looking for a place to go late nights, this is the one.

Space Hair Salon and Bar

Open daily, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
66 Street 136, Daun Penh, Riverside
T: 089 963 066
spacehairpp.com

Blue Chilli

Open daily from 7:00 p.m. until late (1:00 to 3:00 a.m. usually)
26Eo Street 178, Phnom Penh
T: 012 566 353
bluechillicambodia.com

Rainbow Bar

Open daily, 6 p.m. until late
134 Street 136, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 098 712 332

2 Colors

Open daily, 7:00 p.m. until late
225 Street 13, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 017 374 724

Pontoon

Open daily, 9:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m.
80 Street 172 (at Street 51), Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 016 779 966; 010 300 400
pontoonclub.com

Heart of Darkness

38 Street 51, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
Open daily, 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m.
T: 077 304 077; 077 837 777
heartofdarknessclub.com.kh

Expat kid Q&A: Phnom Penh has come a long way, baby makers!

In this expat series about raising kids in Cambodia, we talk to parents about the finer points of parenting in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Parenting in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh parenting: families are everything out here!

English expat Dan Riley has been living in Phnom Penh since 2004, and is currently the editor of Stuff Cambodia magazine. He’s also the father of a 3-year-old girl who enjoys expending her boundless energy at the public, pedestrianized places around his local neighborhood. I asked Dan a few questions about expat parenting in Phnom Penh.

What’s the best part about raising kids in Phnom Penh?

Some things here are so much more affordable than in the West, so you can enjoy doing them more often without fear of breaking the bank. For example, why buy a car and do all your cooking at home when you can regularly get tuk tuks to and from various restaurants across town? I’ve found the local people are really friendly and interested in Westerners with kids; families are everything out here. And nearly everyone in town speaks English, or has someone nearby that does, so new arrivals can get things done from the off.

Astroturf pitches (with plastic pellets instead of sand or water) have sprung up all over in recent years, providing a safe and clean environment for kids to get into sports. And of course there are many swimming pools and bars/restaurants with kids play areas and gardens. Did I mention air-conditioned cinemas, bowling alleys, laser tag, climbing walls, etc? This place has come a long way, baby makers.

What’s the worst part about raising kids in Phnom Penh?

There are no quality free schools and the free health care is pretty limited and not particularly pleasant. There are some decent clinics and hospitals, but anything really serious still requires a trip to Thailand or Vietnam, so health insurance can be a (financial) lifesaver. Phnom Penh can also be quite noisy, dirty and hot. Making excursions out of town can certainly remind you of that.

riding a scooter in Wat Botum Park

Scooting through Wat Botum Park.

What are your favorite activities for kids in Phnom Penh?

I deliberately chose a rental house that was located within walking distance of the riverside and Wat Botum park, as they both offer large public spaces for kids to run around safe from traffic. The entire perimeter of the Royal Palace is either pedestrianized or with pavement (generally without obstruction) and there are tons of families with young kids enjoying the front of the palace area every night: cycling, playing badminton, football and other games. My daughter got a scooter for Christmas and just the other night was racing it, safely, with another scooter boy along the front of the palace. You often bump into your friends and your children can make new friends. There are snacks and cool, cheap drinks for sale all over, its well lit up at night, and there’s usually a nice breeze coming off the river.

Wat Botum playground is bigger and better than anything I saw growing up in England. Saturday and Sunday evenings can be a bit tricky trying to find your little ones amongst the throngs in the murky light (the lamps are not great) but its mostly fenced off and there is a security guard patrolling. Outside of the playground there is a musical fountain and a super smooth area around the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Memorial that can be used for rollerblading, scootering and dare I say it skateboarding. I feel comfortable taking my daughter there anytime, except of course in the midday sun.

If you could give one piece of advice to new expat parents in Phnom Penh, what would it be?

Make the most of the cheap child care, transport, restaurants, sporting facilities and entertainment options. I believe it’s much easier to maintain a social life as a parent here than it is in the West, or at least a more varied social life. Now there are so many more young families of all nationalities living in Phnom Penh, so you and your kids can make new friends and enjoy your leisure time together on a regular basis. Pretty much everything to do with raising a child is now available in shops, and there are networks and forums you can browse and ask for advice.

Review: Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel, Phnom Penh

It’s all about location, location, location at Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel on Street 178. Located in the heart of Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district (that’s the riverside neighborhood), Frangipani Royal Palace is on the doorstep of the National Museum and the Royal Palace, and a two-minute walk to the plethora of bars, restaurants, and shopping on the riverside.

Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel Phnom Penh

Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel is just a block away from Phnom Penh’s riverside in the heart of the action.

The best thing about Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel is the central location and the rooftop pool which offers gorgeous panoramic views of Phnom Penh. There are loungers and tables by the pool, and it’s a great spot to enjoy Phnom Penh’s lovely sunsets. They’ve also got a sky bar on the roof, if you want a sundowner to go with your sunset.

Sunset at the Frangipani Royal Place Hotel.

Sunset at the Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel.

Rates include a complimentary breakfast, and wired or wireless Internet. Each room has a large flatscreen TV with cable that include English-language channels. Rooms are equipped with a safe and a mini-bar, and guests are allowed free use of the hotel’s bicycles.

Frangipani Royal Place Hotel room

Rooms at the Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel are simple but clean.

Less impressive were the rooms. Rooms are spacious and have everything a busy visitor would want, including cable TV and a bathtub. But considering the price, the rooms were a bit faded. They were clean, but our room has some peeling paint, which is not what you’d expect in a “luxury” hotel (yes, $80 is a luxury hotel in Cambodia). If you’re willing to stay somewhere less central, you’d be able to find something more luxurious for the price.

Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel is one of a group of four Frangipani Villa hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Of them, Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel is the high-end option in Phnom Penh. Many of the rooms aren’t as snazzy as they could be, but still offer great value for money in a really central location; the hotel is walking distance from lots of nice restaurants and bars, plus attractions like the riverside, Royal Museum, and the Royal Palace.

View from the Frangipani Royal Palace hotel's rooftop bar at sunset.

View from the Frangipani’s rooftop bar at sunset.

All of the Frangipani hotels have a strict no sex tourism policy and do not allow outside guests to stay the night.

Walk-in rates for rooms range from $80 to $140, not including 10% hotel tax. Prices on Agoda range from around $60 up to $160. The cheaper rooms on Agoda are often $20-25 less expensive than walk-in rates, while the pricier rooms can be more expensive, so it’s worth checking rates on Agoda before you book. We’ve found rooms here on HotelQuickly for as little as $58, but these are last-minute bookings that must be booked the same day.

Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel

27 Street 178, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 023 223 320
frangipanipalacehotelphnompenh.com
Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel on Agoda

Recipes from the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen: Beef saraman curry with pumpkin

Since it opened three years ago, Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap has become a critically acclaimed culinary institution, attracting patrons from all over the world. Many consider it the mecca for modern Cambodian cuisine.

This is the fourth of five posts from Steven, who spent time working in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen, covering a five-course menu and describing some of the techniques and flavor combinations that Chef Joannès Rivière uses to such brilliant effect. Chef Rivière’s recipes have inspired a legion of chefs in Cambodia, both local and foreign. He has graciously supplied some simple recipes and cooking tips to inspire your kitchen, too.

Chef Joannès Rivière in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen.

Chef Joannès Rivière in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen.

Beef Saraman curry is one of our favorite dishes at Cuisine Wat Damnak. This version, with pumpkin, is especially delicious. This recipe comes from the Cham people, an Islamic ethnic community in Cambodia. Although the Cham maintain their Cambodian identity, they are a distinct group within the country and most observe Islamic religious practices. This includes not eating pork, and for this reason beef features heavily in Cham cuisine. Most beef sellers at the markets are female Chams, identifiable by their headscarves.

Any cut of beef can be used, but Chef Rivière advises choosing a joint that requires slow cooking, such as a cheek or shank. The slow cooking will yield not only tender meat but a rich broth that is the basis for the saraman sauce. Pumpkin is the best vegetable to include in this dish, but some greens could also be served as an accompaniment, along with a bowl of rice.

Cuisine Wat Damnak beef saramen curry

The finished product (as taken by a chef, not a photographer unfortunately).

Beef saraman curry with pumpkin

1 liter fresh coconut water with cream
4 beef cheeks or shanks (see Chef’s Notes)
Vegetable oil
A small handful of star anise
A small handful of cassia bark (see Chef’s Notes)
1 large piece of galangal, sliced
5 lemongrass stalks, crushed
A handful of kaffir lime leaf
50 ml fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar

For the curry paste:
2 thumb-sized pieces of turmeric root, chopped
1 large galangal root, chopped
Small handful garlic cloves
Peel of 1 kaffir lime peel
300 g sliced lemongrass
4 hot chilies

1 tablespoon prahok
1 heaped tablespoon of roasted, ground star anise and cassia
1-2 heaped tablespoons of dried chili paste (see Chef’s Notes)
1 cup toasted peanuts
1 cup toasted coconut
1 quarter of a pumpkin, kabocha, or butternut squash
1 heaped tablespoon each of roasted, ground star anise and cassia
Shallots

beef saramen curry ingredients

Assembling the ingredients for beef saramen curry with pumpkin.

  1. Separate the fresh coconut water from its cream: Place the coconut water in a plastic container and refrigerate. The cream will rise to the top. Skim off with a ladle and keep chilled in a separate container.
  2. Prepare the beef: Preheat the oven to 270 Celsius. If using cheeks, remove any membrane along with any excess fat. If using shank, cut the meat into identical-sized pieces, about 200 g apiece. Heat vegetable oil in a wide pot. Sear the beef in the oil until a nice caramelized colour is achieved.
  3. To the meat in the pot, add the small handfuls of star anise and cassia, the sliced galangal root, the 5 crushed lemongrass stalks, and the handful of kaffir lime leaf. Stir in the coconut water, the fish sauce, and 1 tablespoon of palm sugar.
  4. Cover and place in the oven. Cook until it starts to bubble. Then turn the heat down to 170 Celsius and cook for four hours, or until the meat is tender. (See Chef’s Note.)
  5. When the meat is cooked, remove it from the pot and place on a cooling rack. When cool, place in the fridge. Strain the broth and set aside.
  6. Prepare the saraman sauce: Blitz the curry paste ingredients together in a food processor until a paste is formed. Or, if you are feeling up to it, grind them together in a large mortar and pestle. Meanwhile, heat a bit of the fat skimmed from the beef stock in a large pan and add 1 tablespoon of prahok. Cook until golden.
  7. Add the curry paste and the tablespoons of ground star anise and ground cassia. Cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the dried chilli paste and mix well. Add the beef stock and season with some additional fish sauce, if needed to season. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
  8. Stir in the reserved coconut cream and simmer for another 5 minutes. Blend with a hand blender and strain.
  9. In a blender, mix a handful of roasted peanuts with a handful of toasted coconut until a paste is formed. Add the nut paste to the strained sauce. Bring to a boil, then blend again with the hand blender. Set aside.
  10. Cook the pumpkin. If steaming: Peel the pumpkin and cut into two-inch chunks. (If the chunks are not of equal size they will cook unevenly.) Spread evenly in the steaming chamber and sprinkle with salt. Steam until tender. If roasting: Place the unpeeled pumpkin segment in a preheated 200 C oven unpeeled and roast until tender. Allow to cool, then carefully peel and cut into chunks.
  11. Fry the shallots: Peel the shallots and slice them thinly. Cover the slices with water, then drain. Heat a wok with an inch of vegetable oil in the bottom. Line a plate with some paper towels. Pat the shallots dry with more paper towel. Put the shallots into the wok and stir gently until a golden color. Remove from the oil using a sieve and spread on the paper-towel-covered plate, where they will continue to color and crisp up.
  12. To assemble the dish, you will need 2 pans, one with a lid. Slice the chilled beef into slices about 2 cm thick. Place the slices in the lidded pan together with the pumpkin chunks. Add a ladle of the sauce and a ladle of water. Set on medium heat and allow to thoroughly heat through. Be careful not to let the sauce boil. Taste and add salt if needed.
  13. Serve in heated bowls, with a ladleful of sauce over the top. Sprinkle with some toasted coconut, toasted peanuts, and some of the fried shallots, and serve. Offer steamed rice alongside.
Cuisine Wat Damnak service

Assembling a masterpiece during service at Cuisine Wat Damnak.

Chef’s Notes

Beef in Cambodia is notoriously inconsistent and sometimes it can take longer to cook. If you are planning on preparing this dish, then it is advisable to cook the beef the day before to allow for additional cooking time if needed. After cooking, the meat should be properly chilled in order to slice it properly.

Cassia bark is widely available in Cambodia, but cinnamon does the same job.

The dried chili paste can be bought ready made from the market. To make your own,  soak dried chilies in water, squeeze them dry, and puree in a food processor. If the puree is too dry, add water until it is the right consistency.

The exact composition of curry paste in Cambodia is, as with many Cambodian recipes, up to the person who is making it, so the amounts you use of each ingredient can vary according to your taste. As a general rule of thumb, though, Chef Rivière advises using about a quarter as much turmeric as galangal, and roughly one kaffir lime for every 300-400 grams of galangal. Lemongrass, the other main ingredient, can be bought ready sliced at the market; 3 large handfuls of sliced lemongrass to every large galangal root should give a nice balanced paste. However, you can change the proportions until you find the combination that you most prefer.

About the debate to use shrimp paste or prahok: “It really depends on who you talk to. People say that shrimp paste is not Cambodian, but there’s an island near Koh Kong called Koh Kapi, shrimp paste island. When I was shown the recipe by an older Khmer Muslim woman, she used shrimp paste. I don’t use kapi personally, because I like the taste of prahok. I think at the end of the day it’s a matter of personal taste.”

market chilies in Siem Reap

Shopping for chilies at Siem Reap’s Psar Leu.

A note about Cambodian cooking

Rivière points out that Cambodian cooking, and indeed South East Asian cooking generally, is by no means an exact science. The recipes he has provided feature all of the ingredients you will need and the techniques required to execute the dishes, but the exact amounts used will depend on your taste.

Use the ingredients sensibly and taste as you go. Masses of sugar will obviously make a dish too sweet, while not enough fish sauce may leave the dish bland and underseasoned.

The more you cook a cuisine the more accustomed you become to the basics involved. Certain ingredients come up again and again and you will learn what they do and how to use them properly. We have tried to be as clear as possible in the presentation of these recipes, but they all require you to just roll up your sleeves and give them a go.

If you’re in Siem Reap, be sure to make a reservation at Chef Rivière’s restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak.