At a specially prepared meal at Sofitel’s Do Forni restaurant, Andreas Molinari, the restaurant’s executive sous chef, serves smoked salmon adorned with sweet green spheres that resemble caviar.
At the end of the course, Molinari reveals that the little balls are actually cucumber juice, ‘spherified’ with sodium alginate and calcium.
“You have to make these spheres one by one, drop by drop, with a syringe,” says Molinari, who estimates it takes two and a half hours to make around 300 individual spheres.
From spherifying juices to flash freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen, touches of applied science have occurred in the culinary arts for decades.
Sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy, chefs exploit foods’ physical properties for various reasons: from boosting flavour, to making the texture more interesting, or the presentation slicker.
While Phnom Penh lags behind other global capitals in the culinary stakes, its community of foreign chefs can act as microcosm of sorts for the varying styles and opinions found in restaurants the world over. Some - such as Molinari, who most recently worked at Sheraton Abu Dhabi - come with the international hotel brands, while others choose to set up shop in Cambodia because they thrive on the challenge of developing the Kingdom’s culinary offerings.
Timothy Bruyns, head chef at the experimental new restaurant Common Tiger, says he uses ‘modernist’ techniques to play with customers’ preconceived notions of how a dish should be experienced.
One of Bruyn’s techniques is to extract the maltodextrin molecule from tapioca, which absorbs fats and oils, and releases them in water. The resulting powder can then be used as flavouring.
“It’s not heavy and it doesn’t overpower the dish. People put it in their mouths and it reconstitutes itself with moisture and you’ve got the green peppercorn oil, foie gras fat butter, or peanut butter or something like that.”
Bruyn presents a spoonful of a brownish powder. It dissolves in the mouth, releasing a load of foie gras flavouring, uncanny in its resemblance to the real thing.
While Bruyn’s chemical extractions play with the customers’ sense of texture, Caspar von Hofmannsthal, head chef at Deco, uses scientific techniques to cook food under vacuum at precise temperatures.
Sous-vide cooking involves preparing vacuum-sealed food at low temperatures in a water bath, allowing the food to retain its juices and other flavourings that are otherwise lost in the process.
“Say you’re roasting a fillet of beef in the oven,” says von Hofmannsthal, “when you take it out, all the juices come out. That’s the fat that has been melted down, where lots of the flavour is. If you can imagine taking that beef and vacuuming it in a bag, there’s nowhere for that fat to go apart from staying in the meat.”
The use of a slow-cooking water bath allows for incredibly precise temperatures and consistent final products, which prevent overcooking and undercooking. Consequently, Von Hofmannsthal uses sous-vide for all of his proteins, including snapper, chicken, steaks, pork and hamburgers.
Sacha Hernaus, who ran the modernist Aqua Restaurant before it closed earlier this year, says that the concept of playing around with the physical properties of food is nothing new.
“When you take some cream, and put some sugar and you whip it, that is already molecular cooking,” says Hernaus.
The term molecular gastronomy, which was coined by French chemist Hervé in the 1990s, raises eyebrows among some of Phnom Penh’s chefs.
“What is ‘molecular’?” said Hofmannsthal, who says he does not include sous vide under that umbrella. “Everything has molecules in it.”
The Sofitel’s Molinari says that so-called molecular chefs often sacrifice heartiness for chicness.
“[Molecular gastronomy] is more about preparation, because it looks nice, neat and fancy,” says Molinari. “But it will never fill your stomach.”
Bruyns says that the term can be used more broadly to refer to refer to any approach to cooking that makes use of applied science – though he would never use it to describe his own cooking.
“There’s a misnomer about molecular gastronomy being a defined cuisine, when it’s actually defined as the study of the physical facts of what happens during the process of cooking,” he says.
“Everybody wants to define everything these days and you have to have a catchphrase, word or f---ing name for everything.
“If people come here expecting molecular cooking they will be disappointed, because all they get is food that tastes good.”
And for some, old fashioned classics – from barbeque steak to grilled squid – are all that is needed for a good time.
Song Teng, head chef at the Hotel Cambodiana, said some of the newer ideas wouldn’t have a huge impact on the local market anytime soon.
“In general, Cambodians like Cambodian food.”