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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Carving a market from a traditional snack

Carving a market from a traditional snack

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A vendor sells the traditional snack nem at a small shop on the outskirts of Battambang town last week.

BATTAMBANG

KIM Houy, 27, learned how to make a traditional Khmer food called nem from her parents when she was 15 years old.

The trade is something of a village tradition, she said. But though she faces strong competition for sales in Prek Kpob commune, in Battambang province’s Ek Phnom district, an extensive distribution system ensures her products are bought far and wide throughout Cambodia.

The network reaches all the way to south coast in Kampong Som province, but clubs, shops, restaurants and local markets in Phnom Penh are her most lucrative sales points.

In all, the business, which she set up in 2004 with US$3,500 of her own money, brings in between $400 and $500 in profits every month, Kim Houy said.

The traditional Cambodian food, which is a signature dish from Battambang province, is made from hashed fish meat wrapped in banana leaves.
It also contains toasted rice, ginger, star gooseberry leaves, chilies, sugar, salt and seasoning. They tend to be bought in bulk, with 100 nems
going for around 10,000 riels ($2.50).

Nem from Battambang province is perhaps the best known in the country, though it is also a popular product of Kratie province, Kim Houy said.

“Many Cambodian people love to eat nem, and foreigners too,” she said. “If they come to Battambang province they never forget to buy nem to send to their family and friends.”

Public and religious holidays often lead to a bump in sales of nem, like other traditional Khmer products. During these periods, staff are worked off their feet to boost production from between 10,000 and 15,000 nems per day to as many as 25,000 nems a day. “If they [Cambodian people] think about Battambang province, they also think nem because its good taste,” Houy said.

When she launched the business, she had enough funds to employ three workers, but the team has expanded to seven as demand has grown.

These include three employees to package the finished products and dispatch to customers, two business-development managers who scour the country for new markets, a machine operator and a dedicated fish buyer, who buys fresh fish daily from the Tonle Sap river.

He needs to buy somewhere between 80kg and 100kg of raw fish daily to meet demand.

Staffers earn between 140,000 riels and 180,000 riels per month ($35 to $45) depending on experience, but also receive free food every day they work.

Kim Houy has big expansion plans for the business, but recognises it is a tough market. One of the key limitations to expansion is the shelf life of the product, which tends to perish after one week in the open, forcing the company to wait for orders to come in before it churns out a batch.

She is now looking to introduce refrigeration to extend the shelf life to one month and enable the company to smooth over peaks and troughs in production, maintaining a constant output. She is also looking at techniques used in Thailand to keep traditional foodstuffs fresher for longer. With stock on hand, she reckons it’ll be easier to win new customers.

However, her immediate goal is simply to boost orders enough to increase her income and employ three new staffers.

“I will expand my business as soon as I get enough money to do so,” she said. “But if we want to beat our competitor we must ensure quality and taste first.”

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