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.

Read: A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney

This month, the Siem Reap Women’s Book Club is reading A Clash of Innocents by American author Sue Guiney. Somehow the book, which is about the lives of Cambodia expats, didn’t make it onto my radar when it was published in 2011. The book is about 60-year-old American expat Deborah Youngman, who runs the Khmer Home for Blessed Children, a home for 40 orphaned or abandoned children. One day, Amanda, an American backpacker with a mysterious past, shows up, and Deborah’s life goes topsy-turvy.

Phnom Penh alley

A Clash of Innocents takes place on Phnom Penh’s mean streets (and in a local orphanage).

A Clash of Innocents is a compelling read. I picked it up on Amazon (only $2.99!) and spent the rest of the day in bed reading it until there was nothing left to read. Guiney’s depiction of Cambodia is a loving one, she’s clearly fallen for Phnom Penh and it shows in her descriptions of the colors, the smells, and the oppressive heat during hot season.

However, there were some issues that I found difficult to get past. At one point early in the novel, Deborah seems to confess to buying some of the orphans from their families, when she says, “You know orphan can mean a lot of different things here. Some of my kids have living parents, even though those parents have given them up. Sometimes they’ve even taken money for them.”

By way of explanation she goes on to say “sometimes it’s me or the sex trade.” This month Childsafe is running a “Think Families” campaign that advocates keeping families together and not creating more “orphans” by putting children into orphanages. With that in the forefront of my mind, it was hard to like the characters in the book. Why pay a poverty-stricken family to take their child? Wouldn’t paying them to keep their child be a marginally better solution?

And perhaps this is the crux of the problem with A Clash of Innocents. The characters are not fleshed out enough to understand their seemingly selfish behavior: separating families, disappearing on children that have grown attached to the them, berating each other for not getting over events in their past that are materially worse than the events in their own past that they haven’t gotten over, and constantly trying to fix one another without first fixing themselves.

At its core, A Clash of Innocents is the story of profoundly damaged people trying to heal themselves by “saving” Cambodia’s children. It’s hard, though, in light of what we know about the effect that orphanages have on children, to not wonder if ultimately the arrangement benefits the troubled expats more than the children themselves.

For the above reasons, I found the book a frustrating but thought-provoking read. I expect a lively discussion at the book group! As one of the just a few novels about Cambodia expats, I would definitely recommend it to those looking to know more about what life as a Cambodia expat (or at least a certain type of expat) is like. And at just $2.99 on Amazon, it’s a good value read. A follow-up book was published a year ago, Out of the Ruins, which is also available on Amazon for $2.99.

How to get from Sihanoukville to Kampot (and vice-versa)

If you can’t decide between a beach town and a river town, why not visit both?Sihanoukville and Kampot are less than 80 miles apart (126km) and the road is in surprisingly good condition. By taxi, the trip takes less than two hours. Here are all of the ways you can get from Kampot and Sihanoukville (and vice-versa).

Durian roundabout Kampot

Head from Sihanoukville to Kampot and check out the famous durian roundabout.

Taxi: private or shared

Taxis from Kampot to Sihanoukville cost $30, although you will almost always be quoted more. Try to hold out for $30. Keep in mind the trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which is three times as far, can be had for $65, so $30 for a one-and-a-half to two-hour trip is more than fair. Because all transport in Sihanoukville is affected by a mafia-type situation (don’t ask me) taxi prices from Sihanoukville to Kampot are usually $35 to $40, but the $30 trips are still available.

Taxis are usually Toyota Camrys, that can seat four passengers. However, the trunk almost always have a propane, so it will only hold one or two bags. If you have a lot of luggage, you’ll need to keep it in the car so only plan for three passengers.

If you book through your hotel or a travel agent, you will probably pay a surcharge of $5. SUV taxis are also sometimes available for an extra charge. The best way to find a taxi between Kampot and Sihanoukville is to ask a tuk tuk driver, because they invariably have a taxi driver brother or friend. We’ve used a Sihanoukville-based driver named Try, his phone number is 097 666 6051. He does this route often for $30 each way.

You can also head to Psar Leu [map] in Sihanoukville or at the Kampot bus station [map]. There, you can hire a private taxi directly or wait around for a shared taxi. Shared taxis cost $5 per person, and usually carry six or seven passengers. If you want the front seat, you’ll have to have a seatmate or pay for two seats. Shared taxis offer little in the value or comfort categories, but offer an “authentic Cambodia experience.”

Bus/van

While there are no proper buses currently, there are several van companies that go between Sihanoukville and Kampot. Kampot Tours and Champa Mekong Tours are the most popular with expats.

Kampot Tours and Travel is a Kampot and Vietnam-based travel agency that has a mini-bus service that runs between Kampot and Sihanoukville. The cost is $5 and they run twice daily between Kampot to Sihanoukville. The current times are 8:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from Kampot to Sihanoukville and at 7:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. from Sihanoukville to Kampot. As usual it’s best to check the times to make sure they haven’t changed. The trip takes two hours and they offer free pickup. Tickets can be booked at the Kampot Tours office, your hotel or guesthouse or any local travel agent.

Kampot Tours and Travel
One block off the riverside, near Kronat Park, Kampot
T: 092 125 556; 097 982 8756
www.kampottours-travel.com

Tickets on Champa Mekong from Kampot to Sihanoukville cost $5 per person, and includes pickup from your hotel or guesthouse. From Sihanoukville to Kampot the price rises mysteriously to $6, and they will pick you up from the travel agent where you booked the ticket. The vans run at 8:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. in both directions. Schedules change regularly, so it’s worth checking.

Champa Mekong Tours
Ek Reach Street (also called Old Market Street. Next to the park, one block in from the riverside), Kampot
T: 023 696 8000

Ochheuteal Street, Sihanoukville [map]
T: 034 693 8282; 016 947 939; 088 520 3167
facebook.com/Champa-Mekong-TravelTours

Review: Bric-a-Brac B&B, Shop, and Bar, Battambang

The most sumptuous new place to stay in Battambang is Bric-à-Brac, a stunning three-room boutique bed and breakfast, design showroom, and bar located in the heart of the city just two blocks from the river. Owners Robert Carmack, an American food writer, and Morrison Polkinghorne, an Australian textile designer, have spared no expense in kitting out the three large and ludicrously high-ceilinged rooms with plush antiques and delightful second-hand finds from across the globe, spanning decades and styles, with a maximalist mix-and-match approach that is as genuine as it is gorgeous.

Bric a Brac Battambang Orientale room

Bric-a-Brac’s “Orientale” room features a gorgeous carved Chinese matrimonial bed and Meiji-era screen.

The Coloniale room celebrates the design sensibility of French Indochina, with original tilework floors and period furnishings. A mosquito net is draped over the bed with some of Morrison’s own handmade tassels, and hidden in a side table drawer are a set of slides from the owners’ travels in Cambodia. The Indochine’s textured pink grasscloth walls are a marvel, and the desk sourced from a local school. We were especially delighted by the Khmer graffiti in the spacious bathroom. Meanwhile, the Orientale features a spectacular carved Chinese matrimonial bed and Meiji-era screen.

Bric-a-Brac Battambang Coloniale

The “Coloniale” room celebrates the design sensibility of French Indochina. Don’t miss the floor.

Newly opened in November 2014, the owners undertook renovations with care, restoring, preserving, and otherwise highlighting original elements like tile, plasterwork, and the red wrought iron window coverings. There is an element of beautiful decay here — or what the Japanese might call wabi-sabi — and along with the textiles and furnishings it’s a feast of texture and color for the senses.

Bric-a-Brac Battambang

Battambang’s Bric-a-Brac curiosity shop and design showroom.

Even if you’re not staying at Bric-à-Brac, be sure to spend some time at the Libations Bar, an open kitchen with a small but thoughtful wine list, spirits, coffee, and cocktail nibbles. We enjoyed a Côte de Provence rosé with the housemade pork rillettes, which came with slices of baguette, pickled bamboo, and olives. Settle yourself into a wicker chair and watch the Battambang street life roll lazily by as you sip your drink. And stop in at the design showroom, where the duo displays goodies from their travels around the world, including pillows of antique Irish linen hand-embroidered with Burmese days of the week. If you’re lucky, Morrison will be behind the loom he built himself on site.

Bric-a-Brac's Libations bar

Bric-a-Brac’s Libations Bar serves a mean glass of rosé.

Rooms come with aircon, a continental breakfast tray, daily water, free WiFi, and ensuite bathrooms with hot shower, and semi-private balconies overlooking the street. Rack rates are listed at $125 per night, bookable on Agoda. If you’re willing to risk it, walk-ins get a more favorable rate. The bar and shop are closed Mondays.

Bric-à-Brac

119 Street 2, Battambang
bric-a-brac.asia
Bric-a-Brac B&B on Agoda

Recipes from the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen: Pork rib and squid soup

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 third 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.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Siem Reap

Siem Reap’s top table: Cuisine Wat Damnak.

Third Course: Pork Rib and Squid Soup with Baby Ginger and Purple Sweet Potato

Soup plays a major part in Cambodian food culture and is featured on every menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak. A large pot of goodness that the whole family can enjoy together reflects the collective element of Khmer society.

This week Chef Joannès Rivière shares his recipe for a soup of pork ribs and squid, both dried and fresh, that also uses baby ginger (if you can get it) and purple potatoes. One great advantage of living in Cambodia is that much of the meat here is organically fed and free range, and that certainly includes pork. Here the pork ribs are used to make the soup stock as well as appearing in the finished dish.

Cambodian pork rib and squid soup

Riviere’s Cambodian-style pork rib and squid soup.

Pork Rib and Squid Soup with Baby Ginger and Purple Sweet Potato

Vegetable oil
1 rack of pork ribs (approx. 1 kilo)
1 small dried squid (see Chef’s Notes)
10 cloves of garlic, whole
1 large thumb of ginger root, chopped
6 shallots, sliced
8 dried black mushrooms
½ kilo fresh squid
50 ml fish sauce
1 heaped tablespoon powdered palm sugar
Baby ginger roots with stem and leaves (see Chef’s Notes)
Purple sweet potatoes (see Chef’s Notes)

Cambodian ingredients

Local Cambodian ingredients give the dish added depth.

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan and sear the pork ribs until you get a nice caramelized color. Remove them to a large pot. In the same frying pan, sear the dried squid until brown. Add it to the pot with the ribs.
  2. In the same frying pan, brown the garlic, shallots, and ginger. (Add additional oil if needed.) Add them to the pot as well.
  3. Cut the heads off the fresh squid and add the heads to the pot, along with the 8 dried mushrooms.
  4. Cover the ingredients in the pot with water. Add the fish sauce and palm sugar. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Meanwhile, reduce the pot to a simmer and cook for 2 hours, or until the ribs are tender.
  5. Remove the cooked ribs from the stock and place on a cooling rack. If you plan on deboning the ribs, do it while they are still warm, as the bone will slide out a lot more easily.
  6. Strain the broth, discarding the solids, and refrigerate. When the ribs are cool enough, put them in the fridge, too. If you want to serve them on the bone, wait until they are cold, then cut into portions 2 or 3 ribs wide.
  7. Take the headless squid and peel off the purple film. Under a trickle of water from the tap, scoop out the innards and remove the plasticky spine. Rinse the squid off and slice into rings.
  8. Take the baby ginger and cut the leaves from the stalks. Select a few whole, unblemished leaves and roll them up, then slice very thinly. Set aside. Clean and trim the stem and root of the baby ginger. Slice thinly with a mandolin or use a knife to cut into thin slices or julienne. (If this is too much hassle, buy some pre-julienned ginger.
  9. Prepare the purple sweet potatoes: Wash and peel and cook in a steamer. When cooked, cut into serving-size wedges or chunks. (If you don’t have a steamer, see the Chef’s Note.)
  10. Assemble the soup: Heat up the broth and add the ribs and the sweet potato chunks. Cut the heat to low and cook until the meat and potatoes are heated through.
  11. Have ready some heated bowls. Bring the soup to a boil, add the sliced baby ginger and allow to cook for a minute, then remove the soup from the heat. Place two or three pieces of sweet potato in each bowl. Arrange the pork ribs on top of the potatoes. Scatter slices of baby ginger over the ribs.
  12. Meanwhile, place a frying pan on high heat and add a splash of vegetable oil. When the pan is very hot, add the seasoned squid rings and cook for 20 to 30 seconds. (Do not leave them in the pan for too long or they will go rubbery.) Add the squid rings to the soup bowls.
  13. To serve, pour over some of the broth and garnish with the finely sliced baby ginger leaves. Offer a bowl of steamed rice alongside.
Chef Joannes Riviere

Chef Joannès Rivière at Cuisine Wat Damnak.

Chef’s Notes

Dried squid is a very good natural source of MSG. Don’t use too big a piece, however, advises Chef Rivière, or the broth will be too strong. The aim is to add a bit of body to the soup, he says, not overwhelm it.

Purple sweet potatoes are a tricky vegetable to cook, the chef warns, as they are prone to falling apart if even slightly overcooked. The best option is to peel them and steam them whole. If you don’t have a steamer, you can cut them into wedges and boil them until only partly cooked. Then oil a tray, spread the potato wedges on it, and place in a 250 C oven. Turn them after 15 minutes. They should be done in about half an hour, but check with a fork to make sure.

Baby ginger has a long green stem and long green leaves. The flavor is quite strong, which is why Chef Rivière advises blanching it briefly in the soup, as this will take the sting out of it. Baby ginger is not always available; if you can’t find it, you can use julienned ginger and some sliced spring onions.

Buying ingredients at a Cambodian market.

Buying ingredients at Siem Reap’s Psar Leu. Market shopping is a great way to learn about local ingredients.

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.

Organic groceries in Phnom Penh

These days, it’s not hard to find organic products in Phnom Penh, if you know where to look. Even the big grocery chains usually carry some organic produce, but if you want the best selection, head to the organic and all-natural specialty shops.

Phnom Penh organics

Organic produce in Phnom Penh? Maybe. Chemical-free produce in Phnom Penh? Definitely.

Street 63 in BKK1 has several stores that specialize in organic and chemical-free products and there are a few others around the city. These stores work with small farmers and suppliers around Cambodia to bring the freshest produce to Phnom Penh. Be aware, though, that there’s no regulation on the use of the word organic, but most of these stores are members of Cambodia Organic Agricultural Association (COrAA), and carry products that are either certified as chemical-free, or the more stringent classifier, organic.

The following are Phnom Penh’s best organic grocery stores:

Natural Garden

Phnom Penh Natural Garden

Keeping it chemical free at Natural Garden.

Natural Garden is the godfather of organic groceries in Phnom Penh, and a leading produce supplier for many of the city’s hotels and restaurants. A member of Cambodia Organic Agricultural Association (COrAA), they grow and sell organic rice and chemical-free vegetables. Their stores sell both the product they grow themselves in their farm in Sihanouk province, as well as chemical-free fruits and vegetables from sourced from all over the country, including the Svay Rieng agricultural cooperative. They’ve started labeling products, so it’s possible to know the provenance of what you’re buying, from Battambang oranges and Kampot tangerines to Siem Reap melons and Mondulkiri passionfruit. Their selection is probably the best in town, with the widest range of products and highest turnover. However, it’s not always necessarily clear which items are chemical-free as opposed to organic.

Natural Garden also sells fresh breads, French Le Terrior 69 meats and charcuterie, and dry goods, including an expanding selection of locally-produced products such as jams and palm sugar. They also have a lot of tasty products for take-away such as soups, pate and lentil salads, as well as items including fresh-made tofu and Japanese natto. Their flagship store on Street 63 is also their best.

Natural Garden

Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
213BC Street 63, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 023 555 2028
Street 240 at Street 51, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 060 444 058
ngkhmer.com

Green-O Farm

Green-O Farm, Phnom Penh

Green-O Farm, Phnom Penh

Green-O Farm works with farmers in several villages in Kampong Speu to supply them with chemical-free products. They’re also a member of COrAA, and are certified chemical-free, and working towards organic status. They carry a large selection of locally-grown vegetables, salad greens, and herbs, as well as “safe imported vegetables.” It’s sometimes unclear which of their products are local versus imported and organic versus not, but they do seem dedicated to the idea of organic local produce.

Additionally, they carry a selection of Cambodian-produced items like Ratanakiri coffee and Mondulkiri coffee and imported wines and dry goods. We were happy to see Coco Khmer coconut oil products, including not just cooking oil, but coconut oil beauty products. Green-O Farm also offers door-to-door delivery.

Green-O Farms

Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
216CD Street 63, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 023 667 0011; 012 300 955; 068 709 709
gofcam.com

Amarak Veggie Store

Amarak Phnom penh

Newcomer Amarak does delivery boxes of chemical-free veg.

Amarak Veggie Store carries organic produce and locally-produced products, with everything from Pursat wild grape wine to Cambodian mango jam, as well as the more ubiquitous items like local palm sugar and Kampot pepper. They have a small but complete selection of high-quality fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits. The store also sells organic meats and ready-to-eat salads. Perhaps most excitingly (if this is the sort of thing that excites you — and it should) they offer weekly organic produce delivery boxes, where you get a random assortment of fruits and vegetables.

The store is the outlet for Amarak Farm, which is grows certified chemical-free produce. They’re a member of Cambodia Organic Agricultural Association (COrAA) and is working to receive its full organic certification. The farm isn’t far outside of Phnom Penh and they welcome visitors to come see how things work on a Cambodian organic farm. Soon, they will sell seeds directly to consumers who want to try their hand at growing their own vegetables. Amarak Farm is a supplier for chemical-free vegetables for many of Phnom Penh’s finest grocery stores, including Aeon Mall, Lucky Supermarket and Angkor Market. Skip the middle man and shop direct at Amarak Veggie Store.

Amarak Veggie Store

Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
219D Street 63, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 023 666 6889
amarakorganicgarden.com

Happy Farm

Happy Farm Phnom Penh

Happy Farm, happy stomachs.

Happy Farm carries a selection of locally-produced, chemical-free products from all around Cambodia. They’ve closed their flagship shop on Street 63 but their locations in Toul Kork carry a wide range of vegetables, herbs and produce, plus a selection of local fish and meats.

Happy Farm

Open daily, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
1B Street 137, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh T: 070 555 555; 070 555 520
18A Street Northbridge, Sen Sok, Phnom Penh T: 070 555 555; 070 555 530
170, Street 138, Toul Kork T: 070 555 555; 070 555 540
happyfarm.com.kh

Digby’s at DNAK Square

Digbys DNAK Phnom Penh

Digby’s has a small selection of organic products from Discovery Farms.

Digby’s offers a selection of produce from Discovery Farms, a farm in Kampong Speu that is certified organic by COrAA. (Discovery Farms also offers weekly organic produce baskets direct to consumers, call 096 294 8109). They don’t have a huge selection, but if you’re there anyway for a coffee, it’s worth a look. We get the sense that Digby’s had high hopes for being a major organic outlet, but their shelves are eerily bare, although they do have a nice selection of meats.

Digby’s at DNAK Square

Open daily, 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
197 Street 63, BKK1, Phnom Penh
digbysgrocercafe.com

Veggy’s

Veggy's Phnom Penh

We’re not sure if they’re organics, but they sure taste nice.

We are slightly skeptical of Veggy’s half-hearted claims that their produce is organic. In response to our question “is this organic?” we got a blank stare, then, “yes, maybe!” Despite this, it’s worth a visit because they do carry a wide range of mostly-imported fresh vegetables and a selection of hard to find gourmet products like pinenuts and Spanish cheeses and charcuterie. Read our full review of Veggy’s here.

Veggy’s

Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
23 St 240, Phnom Penh
T: 023 211 534

Review: Giant Ibis bus, Phnom Penh to HCMC

Let’s face it, long bus journeys in Southeast Asia are unlikely to be the most fun part of traveling in the region. When a land border crossing is added into the mix, it becomes even more unpleasant, but is something of a right of passage. Luckily, Giant Ibis takes the pain out of crossing the Cambodia-Vietnam border, with a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to HCMC.

giant ibis hcmc

The Giant Ibis bus from PhnomPenh to HCMC (Saigon).

Several bus companies cover the popular Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) route. Of all the Cambodia bus companies, Giant Ibis is the best, unless of course you are looking for the kind of experience that includes blaring Khmer karaoke, lack of air-con and cramped seating. Giant Ibis buses all come with powerpoints, free WiFi and fairly spacious seating even for a larger person. They also offer a snack when you board the bus and the capable staff make you feel as though if something were to go wrong, they might be able to do something about it.

If you are headed from Phnom Penh to Vietnam, remember that you need to get your visa before getting on the bus. Visas are NOT available at the border, and the Giant Ibis staff will not let you continue on the journey if you have not secured your Vietnam visa in advance (here’s how to get a Vietnam visa in Phnom Penh). On the other hand, if you are headed from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, you do not need to get a visa at the border.

From Phnom Penh it’s 170 km to the border and takes about four hours. This includes a quick ferry ride across the Mekong as you pass from Kandal to Prey Veng Province, aboard which you will have the opportunity to buy snacks of fruits and fried crickets. Before boarding the ferry there are a row of houses/restaurants/shops that all have rudimentary toilet facilities. Be warned, you will need to bring your own toilet paper!

Giant Ibis HCMC PP

This is about as luxurious as it gets on this route!

Once across the river the bus continues until the Cambodia-Vietnam border. It is important to be aware that when you board the bus in Phnom Penh the Giant Ibis rep will take your passport to check whether or not you have the correct visa. This isn’t a scam, and your passport will be handed by safely. After a couple of hours you will arrive at the border.

The rep will have returned your passport to you already and, if you have not already done so, will advise you to fill out the departure form that the security staff at the airport usually staple onto your passport when you arrive. When leaving the Cambodian border the guard will check your passport, visa and departure form then ask for electronic fingerprint recognition. You can change money at the border but the rate is extortionate, so get Vietnamese Dong in Phnom Penh before you leave.

There is a half hour stop at the border at a restaurant with toilets. The food isn’t half bad, and the prices are reasonable — a meal and a coffee will set you back around $5.

On the Vietnamese side of the border, it can take a while to get through depending on how many buses are arriving at that point. The Giant Ibis rep takes all the passports for the border guards to check. They’ll call your name and hand it back to you, and you can pass through the gates. There is a conveyor belt and x-ray machine for large items of luggage that you are required to carry across the border as well as all your carry on luggage.

Giant Ibis PhnomPenh HCMC

Giant Ibis seats have powerpoints to keep your phones charged.

Once you are through here, the Giant Ibis bus will be waiting for you. Once everyone is back on, it’s another two and a half hours to Ho Chi Minh City. When you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City the bus drops you one street over from Pham Ngu Lao, which is the main drag for backpacker restaurants and bars. The traffic is notoriously faster and even more chaotic in Ho Chi Minh than Phnom Penh so be careful crossing the road!

On the return journey, you can get a Cambodia visa at the border as long as you’re from one of the approved countries. Tourist visas cost $30. Overall, it’s a surprisingly easy bus journey and border crossing without any of the scams that are usually seen at overland borders.

Tickets on Giant Ibis between Phnom Penh and HCMC/Saigon cost $18. Unlike every other company that operates on this route, Giant Ibis charges the same price to Cambodians and foreigners. You can book at any travel agent or guesthouse in Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City, or you can also book on the Giant Ibis website for an extra $1 and select your own seat.

Giant Ibis schedule:
Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City: 8:00 a.m.
Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m.

Giant Ibis

3Eo Street 106, next to the night market, Phnom Penh
T: 023 987 808
37, Street 7 Makara, Behind Sokimex Gas Station, Kampot
T: 023 999 333
giantibis.com