Cambodian cuisine is far more diverse than many give it credit for. Each region has its own special dishes that remain largely unheard of elsewhere in the country. Even fish amok, despite being promoted as a national dish in the tourist industry, is actually a Battambang specialty. But tracking down the more obscure dishes in Phnom Penh, where restaurants frequently focus on only a handful of well-known options, has become easier thanks to Khmer Booloom.
The restaurant, which reopened this month after a revamp, is located in a chic building on Street 63. It forgoes a traditional Cambodian atmosphere for a minimalist Western décor, with plain brick walls in the restaurant interior. The options, however, are as Cambodian as they come.
The menu is broken up by regions: central (including Phnom Penh), Angkor, the coast, and the Northeast. Options range from fermented fish with pork intestine ($6.50) to stir fried red eel with curry paste ($6.50).
Eager to try the “hill tribe” options, we started our feast with a bowl of trav paiy pornorng ($6.50). With no English translation on the menu or adequate explanation from our server, we went into the dish blind knowing only that it’d be some sort of chicken soup. It turned out to be a lovely lemongrass chicken soup with winter melon slices with only a vague resemblance to anything I had ever tried before in Southeast Asia. The closest thing that came to mind was a lemongrass chicken curry I had tried on a Takeo farm on Khmer New Year, but even that would be a stretched comparison.
Our next dish, khnorp fish ($6.50), came from Siem Reap province. The menu explained that it was a baked parcel of fish with Khmer spices and herbs (English translations were sporadically provided). A bit like amok, it turned out, but with much larger portions and a citrusy aroma.
The taste was excellent, but the cooks had failed to remove the tiny fish spines that proliferated the dish. I poked fun at my dining companion when one got lodged in her throat until I myself found myself in the same predicament – conversation for the next ten minutes was punctured with mutual coughs and throat clearings. Fortunately, the bones were much too small and soft to pose much risk. It dawned on us later that we were probably meant to chew them.
The next dish was red tilapia ($8.50), a freshwater fish native to North Africa but commonly available in Southeast Asia. We ordered it steamed and smothered with chili sauce, although it also comes fried with the options of black bean sauce, soya sauce, or sweet and sour sauce. It was fine and tender, much the way a decently prepared fish should be, although the numerous sharp bones required some care. To top off our culinary adventure, we also ordered some relatively boring BBQ chicken wings ($4.50). A bit bland, but quite tasty when dipped into soya sauced mixed with red chili’s. Other Western options, such as US rib-eye steak ($18.50), is also available.
Khmer Booloom’s flavours are not for everyone. Unlike some other Khmer restaurants in the city, many recipes seem transplanted straight from the provinces without being mingled with international influences. What results is an authentic sample of rural Cambodia that is interesting, complex and thoroughly strange to the uninitiated. The northeastern portion of the menu was particularly curious – even a Cambodian friend said the strong herbs tasted odd. But it is worth stopping by to get a little culinary education, and you never know, you might get a taste for it.
Khmer Booloom is open from 6am to 10pm and can be found at #209 Street 63.