After wrapping the crab meat and avocado in rice and seaweed, the sushi chef sprinkled the dish in tempura batter before dipping it into his deep frier. A minute later, the California roll emerged with a crispy golden seaweed wrapping.
“Cambodian people are starting to like the Japanese food because they want to have good quality food and long lives, like Japanese people,” said Lun Rithy, the affable 30-year-old Phnom Penh native who is the founder and culinary mastermind of the six-months-old Sushi Chef on Diamond Island.
Rithy, the restaurant’s general manager, learned his trade in Paris, where his extended family owns an Asian fusion restaurant. Along with his customers, who he said are mostly young Cambodian professionals, Rithy is part of Cambodia’s cosmopolitan youth who are literally hungry for newness.
According to NoNyum, a bilingual English/Japanese lifestyle publication, nine new Japanese restaurants have opened in Phnom Penh since June alone, including Jingu on Diamond Island, which features a buffet of grilled and raw oysters with special Japanese sauces and ramen joint O-San on Street 294. The Japanese-language Krorma Magazine lists a total of 68 restaurants in the capital.
Takahiro Aoyama, a Kanazawa native and co-owner of Yakiniku Garden Shiki, said much has changed since he first set up his Japanese steakhouse nine years ago. Only five or six Japanese restaurants were around, he said, and they mostly catered to the Japanese expat population.
“Th first time we opened the restaurant, the customers were Japanese. Then they would bring their Cambodian friends, and it became popular [with Cambodians] after,” he said, adding that today around 90 per cent of his customers are Cambodian.
Although he initially only sold steak, he later expanded the menu to include sushi and sashimi after local customers repeatedly asked for them.
“Like with Brown Café, [Japanese cuisine] is a new concept and they like that.”
Montana Rakz, a 23-year-old Cambodian photographer in the capital, said that he eats Japanese food almost every day.
“Japanese food is very special… I love sashimi, I love everything,” he said, adding that Sushi Bar on Street 302 is his favourite Japanese restaurant.
Back at Sushi Chef, Rithy prepared one of his most popular dishes.
The tempura roll, which is common to Japanese fusion restaurants the world over, is essentially a California roll with a deep-fried seaweed exterior. It tasted gluttonously delicious.
But while Cambodia’s urbanites continue to munch on the ever-increasing options for Japanese fare, not all Japanese expats are entirely impressed by the influx.
At BKK1’s Toritetsu restaurant, Nagoya-born owner Atsushi Kawase said that Cambodians, like most nationalities, only know Japanese cuisine through American and European adaptations. The rice at some of the capital’s sushi restaurants, for instance, has a sweeter taste than what he would find in Japan.
He said: “Of course sushi is very famous all over the world, so Cambodian people like to go. They say it’s Japanese food, but it tastes different.”
Rithy acknowledged that the food at Sushi Chef is not quite authentic.
He said: “The taste is mixed with Japanese flavour and European flavour. So everyone can eat it.”
At Toritetsu, which specialises in yakitori skewered chicken, Kawase said he has struggled to find Cambodian customers. He has made small concessions to local tastes, such as breaking tradition by making beef yakitori, but has thus far refused to add sushi or sashimi to the menu despite his non-Japanese customers’ frequent requests for them.
He said: “We are trying to introduce a new kind of Japanese food, but still many people do not know the yakitori.”
Kawase said it is essential to break in to the Cambodian market, which he estimates only amounts to 20 per cent of his customers. With only 1,479 Japanese expats registered with the Embassy of Japan as of 2012, he said that relying on a Japanese expat customer base is risky in such a saturated market.
“I think it’s difficult for all of [the Japanese restaurants]. Some are OK, some are already gone. There’s too many Japanese restaurants for a small Japanese community,” he said, adding that while most new Japanese restaurants fail, a steady stream of restaurateurs from Japan keeps the sector growing.
The yakitori at Toritetsu is savoury and cheap – for as little as a dollar, customers can buy skewers of tenderly grilled chicken breast, bacon wrapped in asparagus or, for the more daring, grilled heart.
Yakitori is pub food, explained Kawase, thus cold Angkor beer is served for $1.50 a glass along with an extensive collection of sake and Japanese spirits.
Although Kawase would like to see more authentic Japanese food take off among Cambodians, he said that with so many restaurants it is possible to find any dish he wants from his homeland.
“The only thing I miss [from home] is McDonalds,” he said with a laugh.