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Coconut, banana and palm sugar are the main sweetening ingredients in Khmer desserts
Coconut, banana and palm sugar are the main sweetening ingredients in Khmer desserts. TERENCE CARTER

Bringing tourists the toothsome taste of Cambodia’s sweet treats

A new Khmer dessert tasting menu at Kaya Cafe in Siem Reap aims to enhance the culinary experience of foodie tourists to Temple Town

Pastry chef Viseak Tun is so nervous he admits he can barely speak. Upstairs in the airy colonial shop-house opposite Old Market that is home to Kaya Cafe and a gourmet boutique, a handful of foreign foodies closely watch the pastry chef and his cooks painstakingly prepare an array of tasting plates of traditional Khmer desserts.

A culinary tour group, the women are armed with cameras and iPhones from which they’re sharing photos of the Kaya sweets on social media. Viseak knows that the first customers to experience this inaugural tasting are potentially tough critics. At the same time, the Siem Reap-born chef believes what his team is doing is important.

“It helps tourists if we share a part of the traditional Cambodian food culture,” the chef explains. “Especially as eating is one of our favourite pastimes.”

Less than two years old, Kaya Cafe was the brainchild of Stéphane Bourcier, founder and managing director of the flourishing Senteurs d’Angkor empire, which specialises in natural, Cambodian-made products.

Bourcier, who has a fondness for Khmer desserts, observed that tourists were avoiding Cambodian sweets, typically only found in less-than-sanitary local markets, for fear of becoming ill. At the same time, Cambodia’s rising middle class was increasingly frequenting Siem Reap’s Western cafes.

Desserts are an integral part of Cambodia’s culinary culture, eaten daily as snacks and at any time throughout the day, from breakfast to afternoon. Rarely are they consumed at the end of dinner, when fruit is served.

With Kaya, Bourcier aimed to offer an array of authentic Khmer desserts, expertly prepared by professional Cambodian pastry chefs in a spotlessly clean kitchen. The concept remains unique in Cambodia.

Up until recently, only an a la carte menu was offered, featuring specialities such as sticky rice and taro cream, palm sugar and coconut milk, moist banana cake, wrapped in banana leaf, accompanied by mango coulis and black sticky rice pudding, served with fresh mango, cinnamon, coconut cream and palm sugar.

Now, guests can sample several generously sized desserts, artfully presented on a tasting plate, watch their preparation in Kaya’s pastry kitchen, receive an introduction to Khmer desserts, and get the opportunity to ask questions at the end.

Two of the participants at the inaugural tasting, Arva and Farida Ahmed, Indian sisters from Dubai who run food tour company Frying Pan Adventures, said they were impressed.

“I was surprised to find that Khmer desserts not only incorporate the bounty of Cambodia, but are also richly nuanced in flavours,” Farida Ahmed observed.

“The desserts were a real eye-opener,” Arva Ahmed agreed. “The variety on offer, as well as the different techniques going into preparing them, was a revelation.”

“I liked the fact that they were really interested in the Cambodian ingredients and recipes,” the chef said afterwards, obviously relieved. “I am really happy and proud to be able to share my knowledge of Khmer desserts.”

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