A two-week stay in the West Bank convinced me of the unique joys of Middle Eastern food. The 2006 Lebanon War broke out the day we arrived and emotions ran high. But in between travel through the Holy Land and political diatribes came endless plates of sweet, freshly baked kanafeh and deep-fried falafel. Food was a happy, earthly escape between check-points and unpalatable arguments. One month later, I had just relocated to Cambodia and still craved a decent chicken shawarma.
Phnom Penh got its first Middle Eastern restaurant when the now-defunct Le Cedre opened in 2007, and a handful of places have opened since. Petra Restaurant, the newest addition, stands out for billing itself as Jordanian while the rest have all been Lebanese. To foreign mouths, the differences are slight: both are delicious, and Petra is no exception.
The restaurant’s décor eschews a modern vibe for a stereotypical Arabic atmosphere, with Cambodian servers dressed in red Jordanian keffiyehs and Ottoman-style fez hats. Visitors are also welcome to try on Arab-style costumes and have their photos taken while seated on an oriental sofa. The setup is slightly Orientalist, but I will give the Jordanian proprietor a pass.
Each tabletop features a wrapped scroll that describes the founding of the ancient city from which the restaurant derives its name. The towering red-stoned buildings carved into a mountainside, read the scrolls, inspired the three-storey restaurant located in BKK1. A bit of an outrageous comparison, but it is all part of Petra’s humour.
But you come for the food, not the jokes, and it’s mouth-watering. The tabbouleh ($4.50) was exactly what it should have been: a finely chopped salad that gets the parsley to mint ratio just right without overdoing the garlic or olive oil. Our chicken shawarma ($5.50) was also prepared with mastery and without the greasiness that often ruins an otherwise fine shawarma. The unusual asabe jibben ($5) turned out to be gluttonous rolls of feta and cheddar cheese. My one complaint is that we only had one complimentary serving of pita bread for two people eating both hummus and falafel.
After dinner, hookahs ($10.50) can be enjoyed on the rooftop bar in several fruit flavours. I instead opted for a glass of karkadeh ($3), which the server insisted I try because it was “made out of flower”, which I took to mean “flour”. Confused, I discovered that it was hibiscus tea.
Petra might make Edward Said turn over in his grave, but its food is a welcome addition to the capital’s culinary scene. BKK1 might be a far cry from majestic Petra or the occupied Palestinian territories but, as this restaurant proves, Middle Eastern food can be enjoyed anywhere.
Petra can be found at #8A Street 288.