Think of Southeast Asian food, and dishes featuring ingredients like fish, coconut, rice, and noodles naturally spring to mind – you might have even tried making your own Pad Thai or Massaman curry at home, such is the availability of exotic ingredients nowadays. But visit this part of the world and you’ll be surprised by the ready availability of Western food.
Cambodia in particular, with its long history of being ruled by both surrounding and distant colonial nations (following 600 years as the powerful Khmer Empire, ruling most of mainland Southeast Asia), offers a wide range of food options. But it’s the prevalence of French restaurants, cafés, and delicatessens that is most noticeable.
In the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, the Yellow Pages list 87 French restaurants, many of which are considered to be “gastronomic.” Visitors to Siem Reap, which is currently enjoying a huge boom in tourism, can experience French cuisine in a number of beautiful old French colonial buildings as well as more recently established venues. Even in a small town like Kampot, situated in Southern Cambodia, on the Praek Tuek Chhu River, the number of French-run eateries is overwhelming.
It’s perhaps not all that surprising when you consider the role France has played in Cambodia’s fortunes – and misfortunes. Ever since the Cambodian King Norodom had his request for the establishment of a French protectorate over his country granted in 1867, French style and culture has become more and more ingrained in the fabric of the nation – and nowhere more so, one could argue, than in the food industry.
Bringing it all back home…
Ironically, although the French administration set out to introduce French culture and language to the Khmer people as part of an assimilation programme, there was one product of Cambodia which infiltrated all the top restaurants in Paris: pepper. A book widely cited by modern-day growers of this exquisite condiment, called Un empire colonial français, l’Indochine, published in 1930, is said to make the following claim:
“…pepper is by far the main colonial export crop. Almost all the pepper consumed in France – 2.100 tonnes in 1927; 2600 tonnes in 1928 – comes from Indochina, even more so since the April 1928 custom law allows unlimited imports of pepper from the colonies. The French colony exports even more: 3.416 tonnes in average since 3 years, 4.235 tonnes in 1927.”
Importing pepper, exporting chefs
Importing Kampot pepper to France was precisely how one of Cambodia’s current French chefs found his way to the country. Yannick Dubrunfaut, who now runs Kampot’s gourmet French restaurant, Chez Aline, says he fell in love with the Khmer people and their way of life from the moment he set foot in the country during a business trip in 1998. Eventually, he decided to stop importing pepper and export himself.
“I can get all the same products here as I can in France – even things like artichokes, leeks, and celery. Or I can use local produce to make French foods, such as peppered ham and rillettes (coarse paté),” he explains. “It’s easy to operate a French restaurant in Cambodia”.
Yannick uses local ingredients to add effect to the traditional French dishes he makes, too. A serving of beef bourguignon at Chez Aline comes decorated with edible flowers – a staple of the Cambodian diet, which he says is good for one’s health and gives the plate an interesting flavour.
Although you’ll only find typically French food on the menu at Chez Aline, many other French restaurants throughout Cambodia pride themselves on their ability to create sumptuous versions of traditional Khmer dishes. At the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), located at the former French Governor’s residence in Siem Reap, for instance, you’ll find the same eclectic combination of Asian and Western dishes that was available to international clientele during the days of French rule.
But whilst the Khmer people have welcomed French restauranteurs to their country, they appear to have adopted very little French cuisine. It’s only the iconic baguette that’s truly been taken to heart, being widely used for making sandwiches, accompanying curries, and for filling hungry bellies first thing in the morning – washed down, of course, with a cup of Cambodian-grown coffee. A metaphor, you could say, for the level of independence they’ve established since the country had its French protectorate status abolished in 1949.