For a city not on the seaside, Phnom Penh has more than its fair share of oysters. Businesses ranging from street-side food stalls to five star hotels sell them all over town. Now the city’s top chefs are experimenting with the fishy delicacies – both imported and home-grown.
“Every country has good oysters,” says Luu Meng, head chef at Malis Restaurant and one of the directors of the Thalias Group, which owns both Malis and Topaz restaurants. “The best tasting are not too small and not too big, and the seawater is very clear and fresh.”
Oysters from the southern coast arrive in Phnom Penh markets daily and are sold at street stalls around town. They are commonly served raw with fried onion, herbs and a sweet and spicy sauce.
“We sell most of them for 1,500 riel apiece,” said one street vendor on Street 231. “We get some weighing one kilogram and sell them for 2,500 riel, but people don’t like them as much.”
In a country with high temperatures and unpredictable infrastructure, the safety of street oysters is open for debate.
“I think they are fine, I’ve had some on the street that were very good and I’ve never been sick,” says Thalias managing director Arnaud Darc. “But the oysters in Cambodia, we are not 100 per cent sure.”
Thalias sticks to the ‘Fines de Claires’ oysters that it imports weekly from Brittany and sells at Topaz. Before going to market, these top-notch oysters are stored in highly sanitized brackish basins for two and a half years. The resulting product is highly refined and lacks the salty ocean taste of regular oysters.
“This is really a luxury product,” says Darc. “It is like caviar or foie gras. Even in France it is very expensive.”
When served raw, Topaz presents the oysters with lemon juice and red wine vinegar mixed with shallot. The cooked oysters are prepared in a sauce of champagne, ham and mushroom. Moscato wine is considered a necessary accompaniment for either preparation.
“The ‘Fine de Claire’ oyster is very sweet, very delicate to your palate,” says Darc.
However, the right Cambodian oyster is nothing to sneer at, even when served alongside the ‘Fine de Claire’.
“You taste more of the sea,” said Darc of the Cambodian oysters. “They are bigger and more fatty, like a steak.”
Luu Meng and Darc say that they hope to introduce Cambodian oysters to Malis in the near future.
“We try to promote local ingredients all the time at Malis,” said Darc.
However, they are still approaching the local oyster supply with caution.
“If the oyster is not handled properly, it can have dramatic effects on whoever consumes it,” says Darc.
“We don’t want to get surprises,” Luu Meng adds. “If we, as chefs, don’t know the background of the oyster, we don’t use it.”
Although he isn’t certain, Darc says he thinks the oysters are probably safe to eat.
“Once we have the certainty that they travel safely in the proper coolers in the trucks, we will serve them,” said Darc.
Even if safety can be assured, Luu Meng says it will be a while before Cambodian oyster producers learn the subtleties of the trade.
“The French have so many years of experience and Cambodia does not,” says Luu Meng. “The Cambodians, they handle the oysters like a piece of rock.”
Everything about Oyster production, from the seawater the farmers choose to the specific oysters harvested, determine the outcome of the flavour.
“I think this will be a difficult training, and we are not specialists on that,” said Luu Meng. “What we can do is speak on behalf of the professional chefs- that the oyster must be alive in a proper way, from the way you carry them to the boxes you put them in.”
However, he says local demand for high-quality oysters is growing.
“You have young Cambodians who travel, who study, they want to try different cultures and different lifestyles.”