A few years ago, a young French chef came to Siem Reap as a volunteer to train the students at Sala Baï, an NGO that every year trains about 100 young disadvantaged Cambodians from the surrounding area in the arts of cooking, front of house, house-keeping and waiting tables. The school has a solid reputation for the quality of its graduating students; every single graduate has been placed in paid work within three months of graduation, and they swiftly out-earn their peers.
After working there for two years, chef Joannès Rivière jumped at the chance to work at the newly opened Hotel de la Paix. Within a year the modest but passionate cook from Lyons graduated to the position of executive chef at the hotel’s restaurant Meric, and helped win the hotel a swag of awards. Joannès has championed the cause of real Khmer cooking and established a strong reputation for serving among the best food in Siem Reap.
Last year, Joannès left Hotel de la Paix to set up his own restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak, where he continues to produce the best of real Cambodian cooking, mixed in with a splash of French magique. Since April this year, locals in the know have been flocking to try out his food, and visitors are beginning to hear about it too.
Describing Cambodian food, Joannès says “the biggest feature is its seasonality and freshness. Cambodians cook with what’s around them. I try to reproduce that in Cuisine Wat Damnak, and so far as is possible, all of the ingredients come from Cambodia”. Most food served in Siem Reap’s restaurants and bars comes from Thailand and Vietnam, not Cambodia.
Joannès has agreed to share one of the recipes with us so you can try a taste of Cambodia:
Kay fish is considered by Cambodians to be one of the best fish from the lake, though funnily enough it doesn’t yet have a proper English name. Although a river fish, it is a surface predator and does not taste muddy. Instead, its flesh is delicate and comes very close to Dover sole in texture.
I decided to prepare it with aubergine because they are beautiful at the moment. In order to preserve the quality of the fish I went for a Cambodian-Chinese type of preparation that will not cover the taste of either the fish nor the aubergine.
For 2 persons:
2 kay fish of 200g each (any other firm fish will do. Dover sole is a very good alternative)
1 big long and purple aubergine
2 tablespoon of baby bean sprouts
½ tablespoon of deep fried shallot
2 tablespoon of fermented soy bean
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1 coffee spoon of palm sugar
First prepare the sauce. Strain the fermented soy bean and keep on the side. Gather the fish sauce, the palm sugar and liquid from the bean in a small pan and simmer slowly until it becomes slightly thicker. Fermented soy beans (sien in Khmer) can be purchased fresh from the market here or in jars in Asian supermarkets in the West. It is quite sour and should be replaced by a little bit of lime juice if not available.
Season the fish with salt and pepper. Cut 2 big slices in the length of the aubergine and cut the rest in quarters. Season with salt and pepper. In a non-stick pan, heat a little bit of lard and sear the fish and the aubergine quarters. Cover and cook on medium heat for five minutes, gently turning everything regularly. Once cooked, remove from the pan and set aside. Place the eggplant slices in the pan and cook. In the same time you should sweep the pan with eggplant in order to get the small caramelized pieces of fish that were left in the pan.
Debone the fish and cut in small pieces. Roughly slice the aubergine quarters. In a mixing bowl toss the fish with the cut aubergine, the bean sprouts, the deep fried shallots, the fermented beans, the sliced spring onions and the sauce.
Serve on the aubergine slices and finish with a little bit of migne herb on the top. Migne herb also does not seems to have a name in English. It looks like chervil but tastes like celery. Its name means “tape player” herb and can be replaced by celery leaf.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Wat Damnak village
T: (063) 965 491/(077) 347 762
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 29th March, 2015.