Jai Rihan, the owner of the recently opened Maya Café, boasts that his is the most authentic Malaysian food in Phnom Penh.
Rihan, who splits his time between Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh, opened Maya in a renovated apartment building in Street 19 about a month ago. With a mostly black colour scheme, the place has table dining on the open-fronted ground floor, a lounge mezzanine with floor seating and a bar and air-conditioned VIP room upstairs serving $1 draft Tiger beer (due to open today).
In a bid to represent the three major ethnic communities in Malaysia, his menu has a selection of Malay dishes like nasi lemak ($3.50) and chicken satay ($4.50), while the ethnic Indians are represented by the curries ($2.50 to $5), roti canai ($2) and so forth.
A whole section is devoted to Chinese eats cooked in woks – stirfries and the like ($3.50 to $4.50). The food is also all halal (for the Muslim Malays) and the only meat on the menu is chicken (no beef for ethnically-Indian Hindus).
“So I try to balance all,” Rihan said. “There’s a lot more Malaysian dishes I could put on the menu but then there would be too much.”
“There’s a saying: Malaysians don’t eat to live, we live to eat.”
To put Rihan’s claim to be the most authentic Malaysian cuisine to the test, the litmus dish has to be nasi lemak ayam rendang ($5).“It’s really the authentic Malaysian dish,” Rihan said. “We have it every morning and every afternoon if we can.”
Rihan’s version incorporates aromatic rice – cooked with coconut milk, pandan leaf, onion and a little oil – with fried peanuts and anchovies on the side. Then there’s the ayam rendang: a piece of chicken cooked in a slow-simmered paste of fresh galangal, coconut milk, lime and turmeric leaves along with other Malaysian spices.
However, according to Rihan, the highlight for Malaysians of any nasi lemak ayam rendang is the sambal chilli paste.
“In Malaysia we actually travel for hours and hours just to get a perfect sambal. It’s really a famous thing. If a restaurant in Malaysia can cook a perfect sambal, the next day you just post it on Facebook it’s going to be full.”
For the sambal, Rihan blends dry and fresh chillies, onion, ginger, garlic, lime, seasoned prunes and prawn paste. “The prawn paste is not uncooked – we char it so you have just a little bit of burned flavour.” The sambal is then cooked in the same oil as the anchovies – adding just a hint of umami. The result is a little sweet, a little sour and hot.
“This one you got to cook it – the longer you cook it the better it is. It’s got to be on the stove at least an hour and a half.” Rihan said the standard of a sambal was determined by the quality of the ingredients, the ratios between them and the care and attention paid by the chef to keep everything consistent.
“Everyone has their own recipe, but the base of the taste should be these ingredients – it’s how you enhance it that makes it fantastic. So I’m quite well known for the sambal that I cook. If you come in the afternoon or mornings during office hours, my café is packed with Malaysians because you can’t get this sambal anywhere in Phnom Penh. In fact, even in Malaysia it’s quite hard to get.”
Ultimately though, the reason his cooking tastes more authentically Malaysian, he said, is because he imports most of his ingredients.
“You see when, the ingredients are made here, cultivated here or planted here, the taste will be different because the soil is different,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. Before I opened, I actually bought ingredients here and used them to cook and it tasted totally different. No matter how I did it. But when I brought my ingredients from Malaysia and I cooked it again, it was fine! So I knew that was the key.”
Maya Café Phnom Penh is located at #171 Street 19. Tel: 012 662 620.