Kim Seakchalina met his wife, Chhom Chhalika, in 2001, when they were both working for the government. The two quickly fell in love and dreams of a life together began to percolate. “We always wanted to get married and start a family, but we had to wait to have enough money for that, and we were too busy,” Seakchalina said.
In 2008, as the global economy plummeted, like many other Cambodians, the couple suffered from declining incomes and increasing prices. So they turned to another business to produce extra income.
They decided to open a nameless restaurant with just two tables in a small rented house near Olympic Market, which specialised in papaya salad, roasted chicken wings, and steamed sticky rice the same dishes they enjoyed together at home. The restaurant was only open in the evenings, after they had left their offices at the Senate and the Ministry of Tourism.
“It was a hard time, but we believed that people still have to eat, although they would prefer cheaper food,” said Chhalika, 32. “I cooked the food, and Seakchalina waited tables. It was so busy and tiring after a long day at the office, but we kept reminding each other that we are doing it for our love, and that no matter what would happen, we would still have one another.”
The non-descript hole-in-the-wall shop grew a customer base and, after a few years, they opened a small restaurant in 2012 with their savings and a bank loan, which they named Tbal Khmer (Khmer Mortar), on Street 432 behind Tuol Tom Poung pagoda. They added more dishes to the menu, and Tbal Khmer is now a popular spot with young Cambodians who go there for its specialties, the papaya salad set ($3.5), and Ya Horn ($1.75 to $4), a spicy hot pot soup.
The couple finally got married in 2015, and Chhalika gave birth to their son in the next year.
Last December, the couple decided to expand again, this time opening a second Tbal Khmer branch in Boeung Keng Kang I on Street 360. Compared to their location in Russian Market, the new branch is more family-oriented, with ample space, comfortable furniture and stylish decoration.
In addition to the couple’s specialties, the restaurant serves a wide range of Khmer dishes for lunch and dinner, such as Teuk Kreung – grilled fish with mango sauce – and various Khmer soups. The menu is changed twice a week to give customers as many tastes as possible.
It also includes, as of this month, a range of frog dishes, like the frog porridge set ($7.5), cooked with ginger and a bowl of Khor Kang Keb (frog stew), and crispy Kang Keb Para, or deep fried unskinned frogs ($6.50). The latter was invented by Chhalika and is unique to Tbal Khmer.
When asked for the secret ingredient to their success, the couple points to their relationship.
“Our ingredients and recipes are similar to those of the other restaurants, but the difference is that we put our love into it,” said Chhalika. “We choose the flavours that satisfy both our taste buds, hoping they will satisfy others too, and we work hard together.”
Seakchalina, meanwhile, went a step further in emphasising the importance of their partnership to the enterprise.
“The papaya salad represents our patience, the roast chicken our faithfulness, and the sticky rice our intimacy.”
Tbal Khmer’s BKK branch is located on Street 360 (next to KFour) in Boeung Keng Kang 1. It is open every day from 11 am-11pm. Tel: 016 895 888/ 011 798 897