Destination: Siem Reap
Proof is in the produce
I'm careering around the dusty roads of Siem Reap in the back of a tuk-tuk. At the wheel is Joannes Riviere, the chef from Cuisine Wat Damnak. As we slow down to make a turn, I notice a group of Cambodians standing around a street-side food stall, watching us and giggling.
It's not clear whether they're laughing because they've never seen a foreigner - or as Khmers call us, barang - at the wheel of a tuk-tuk, or because they know that Riviere is a famous chef who probably shouldn't be driving one at all.
The Frenchman, who moved to Cambodia in 2003 and who speaks almost fluent Khmer, is credited with being one of the few chefs in the country who is cooking "real" Cambodian food.
While his restaurant is popular with foreigners, more and more of his customers are Khmer. Riviere's partner, and the restaurant's co-owner, Carole Salmon says: "After eating his food Cambodians are sometimes surprised that the chef is French. They are sure he must be Cambodian."
Cambodian cuisine, Riviere says, is all about the ingredients. "It's a complete mistake to reduce Cambodian food to a bunch of recipes," he tells me, explaining that many dishes traditionally rely on ingredients that are fresh and locally grown. "Cambodian food is all based on produce."
After travelling around Asia he became convinced that one thing that sets Cambodia apart from its more developed neighbours is the country's ingredients, from fish and shellfish from Tonle Sap and the Mekong, to wild game and herbs that are rarely seen outside Southeast Asia.
Although much of what's consumed in the country is imported, there is also an incredible variety of local and wild-grown foods. It is these that Riviere obsesses over.
He shows me his collection of books related to Cambodian cooking; his two favourites aren't cookbooks, but a field guide released by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, Fishes of the Cambodian Mekong, and The Dictionary of Plants Used in Cambodia, a 915-page tome self-published by a Cambodian botanist.
Cuisine Wat Damnak is one of the best restaurants in Cambodia, and its mission is to showcase Cambodian ingredients. Riviere believes that food, like wine, is defined by terroir - the place it's grown, raised and gathered.
So the menu, which consists of a four-course meal for US$19 and a five-course meal for US$26, changes every two weeks because it's all locally sourced. Everything that goes into Riviere's food is seasonal, of course, and even when a product might be seasonally available, it is often in short supply. For example, Riviere's source for Cambodian quail can only provide enough to supply the restaurant for a few weeks at a time.
Most good restaurants are based primarily on ingredients, Riviere says, not techniques or recipes. "That's how Cambodian restaurants for Cambodians work," he points out. "You'll never find a Thai chicken breast in a Cambodian restaurant."
You'll never find one at Cuisine Wat Damnak, either. Riviere's insistence on using only locally grown produce means that his recipes don't include onions, carrots, cabbage, potatoes or coriander. He makes an exception for shallots out of season, and for a few things he uses in desserts.
But by and large, everything on his menu is from Cambodia. This results in a characteristically Cambodian taste that makes his Khmer guests nostalgic for the food they grew up with. "It reminds them of their childhood, even if they've never eaten it before," Riviere says. "They feel like this is something they could have eaten in the past."
Although his dishes are distinctly Cambodian, they are also his own. Riviere combines traditional Cambodian ingredients in a way that Cambodian chefs would not. He says his status as an outsider has given him the freedom to combine ingredients in unusual ways, and be experimental.
Sometimes he uses substitutes, as with his delicious marinated calamari salad. Made with a traditional plea base, a lime dressing that is usually used to marinate fish or beef ceviche-style, Riviere's dish features squid instead, but also prawns and coconut tree hearts, a rare ingredient. "No one grows it for sale," he says. "It only shows up at a market when someone cuts down their tree to build a new driveway."
A recent menu item, "rice paddy crab yellow curry with Mekong langoustine and tamarind shoot", is based on a rustic Khmer dish, samla prahal khua k'dam, made from small freshwater crabs from the rice fields. The traditional preparation uses green tamarind shoots in the curry, which look unappealing.
Riviere's version, as beautiful as it is tasty, piles the shoots on top of the langoustine and kabocha squash, so that they cook immediately when stirred into the steaming curry. Says Riviere, "When Cambodians see it prepared this way, they ask 'Why didn't I think of this?'"
Riviere is sometimes described as someone who is "rediscovering" Cambodian cuisine. He scoffs mightily at this idea: "Cambodian food is everywhere," he says.
Cuisine Wat Damnak is between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School, Wat Damnak Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia, tel: +855 (0) 6396 5491. cuisinewatdamnak.com