The Cambodian food industry, including traditional Khmer cuisine, was on the verge of a major upgrade in May 2017, according to Japan’s authoritative Nikkei Asian Review.
The publication noted, “While a handful of ambitious chefs, both local and foreign, are presenting showy dishes, a genuine farm-to-table movement is being forged by new artisanal suppliers and farmers.”
Now, almost two years later, genuine farm-to-table tucker has truly arrived in Temple Town.
In late May, Japanese-expat and cookie mogul-turned-farmer, Kojima Sachiko, aka Madam Sachiko, opened Siem Reap’s first fully fledged farm-to-table café and fruit and vegetable retail outlet, stocking fare mostly produced on her Svey Chek Organic Farm.
And just over a week later, on June 1, high-profile Khmer chef Sothea Seng opened a new restaurant, Lum Orng, in outer Siem Reap.
It’s boldly billing itself on its website as, “Cambodia’s first farm-to-table restaurant” specialising in New Mekong Cuisine, a mix of Khmer cuisine favourites and regional dishes.
Kojima Sachiko’s SvayChek Organic Farm Shop in trendy Kandal Village is more of a retail outlet for produce.
Fare is served café-style and leans toward the ethical foodie purist side of things, possibly an evolution for Kojima from 2010 when she revealed that she was on a new health food kick – instead of always eating out, she was ingesting more soybeans and brown rice and learning how to make soybean milk.
Kojima arrived in Siem Reap in 2000, working as a tour guide and a Japanese language teacher before investing in a coffee shop which she says went bust after staff stole her equipment. She returned to Japan to teach and came back to Cambodia in 2003, setting up Khmer Angkor Foods in April 2004, retailing coffee, lotus tea and cute Angkor-shaped cookies under the brand name Madam Sachiko.
The Japanese dubbed her “The Cookie Mogul of Angkor Wat” in 2008, reporting that her staff numbers had grown from two to 60 and she was making $13,000 on a good day.
She also opened the now defunct Trois Continents Café in Phnom Penh which featured a healthy soup lunch menu, then invested in a farm on the outskirts of Siem Reap and sold her Angkor Cookies business in May 2016 to turn her attention to her new venture.
“We now have a 42 hectare farm employing about 25 people, and we grow a30 varieties of organic vegetables and fruits such as mangos, banana, pineapples, lime and sugar cane,” she says
Farm manager Mr Tong chips in and says, “Plus we grow broccoli – I have never seen this one before.”
Kojima emphasizes that the sustainable eco-friendly farm and retail store will provide pesticide and chemical free produce that is locally grown in Siem Reap and is farm-to-table fresh.
Sothea Seng also invested in farmland and says that between his organic gardens and small farms at Lum Orng, his Issan Lodge and a 1.5 hectare farm at Beng Mealea, he grows about 25 varieties of fruit and vegetables plus a comprehensive range of herbs.
This produce goes to his Lum Orng restaurant farm-to-table, which has a menu encompassing all food groups in new ways borrowed from old ways.
“Lum Orng means ‘pollen” in English, which is all about fertilisation, giving life and regeneration, which seemed like a perfect name for a farm-to- table restaurant,” he says.
“Farm-to-table is a restaurant concept, it’s about growing your own produce so you know it’s safe and healthy, free of pesticides, and it’s about getting that produce to the table as soon as you can after it’s been picked so it tastes the best it can.
“Most of my produce will be from my farms and gardens when possible, according to the seasons, but when I can’t provide my own ingredients, I will source it from local growers and markets, as I still want to support my community.”
“I am also developing a network of trusted organic growers and suppliers in the region. For example, I really want to use the excellent Thai organic wagyu beef from Surin.”
Sothea Seng is one of a handful of young leading Khmer chefs who learned their trade while working internationally.
Sothea, originally a rice farm boy, started as a kitchen hand in Siem Reap’s Sofitel in 2001, then moved to other top hotels in town, worked the Caribbean, and in 2005 cooked at the Grand Hyatt, Dubai where he learnt the art of grilling steak at the hotel restaurant, Manhattan Grill.
He returned to Cambodia in 2009 and signed on as chef with the now-defunct Nest, then a newly opened contemporary cuisine restaurant in Siem Reap which, in its first year of opening won Cambodian Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural Tourism Alliance Awards 2009 in Vietnam in October 2009.
He left Nest in 2010 and started up a couple of small cafe style eateries which in late 2013 evolved into the riverside Palate Angkor Restaurant and Bar, a joint venture with one of Siem Reap’s richest women.
When that restaurant changed its style, he opened his own restaurant, Mahob (meaning ‘Food,’) where he first talked of sourcing food locally.
“I still own Mahob, where we are cooking modern Cambodian food,” he says, “My very capable team of chefs will still run that kitchen. I will still be involved – but my main project will be Lum Orng.”