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Desperately seeking vegetables

091023_7d15

Even non-vegetarian friends have changed their minds and become regular customers

THE mission was simple: Track down Siem Reap’s exclusively vegetarian restaurants. But most eateries cater to both herbivores and their carnivorous counterparts. I didn’t want to see anything that once had a beating heart, functioning brain or blood-filled veins on the menu.

The ultimate in Siem Reap vego cuisine is undoubtedly Chamkar, in The Passage, the hippest alleyway in town. Frenchman Nicolas Devaux raised the bar when he opened his gourmet Khmer-style restaurant last year.

“I love the taste of food where vegetables play the main role and, as a result, some non-vegetarian customers are surprised to rediscover the taste of vegetables,” he said. “To design savoury vegetarian recipes you need to be more creative.”

The menu is indeed creative and exciting; Devaux works hard to disprove the misconception that vegetarian fare is boring.

“Bad vegetarian food is as boring as bad traditional food. Taste is a matter of quality. Cambodian markets are wonderful places where you always discover new seasonal vegetables and fruits, as well as roots, herbs and spices.

“I like to seek new produce and try different combinations in order to offer innovative tastes. That’s why even non-vegetarian friends changed their minds, and some have become regular customers,” he declared.

Next in line is the more European-style V&A restaurant, opposite the Old Market. The menu here is often updated and lists curries, risottos, salads, made-from-scratch dips and tasty tarts among other fare.

Co-owner Karl Balch says when it came to deciding what type of restaurant to open, despite being a meat-eater, going vegetarian was a “no-brainer. There was only one in town; it was purely economics,” he said.

Balch’s vegetarian brother works with Balch’s wife, Van Som Sorannary, to keep the menu interesting but Balch says there’s no secret to great veggie food. “It’s not rocket science. Just use your imagination and put the right ingredients together,” he stated.

An off-the-beaten-track surprise is the family owned Vitking House, past Angkor High School.

Sareth Y, along with his wife and brother, arrived three years ago to start a second Vitking House restaurant – his parents own the original in Phnom Penh.

Vitking House has vegetarian food with a difference. Diners may be shocked to see photos of what appears to be meat gracing the pages of the extensive menu. In fact, the “meat”, imported from Taiwan, is made from soya products and Chinese mushrooms. The “beef” skewer is particularly tasty and topped with a special sauce.

Half the menu is dedicated to drinks, with a blue pumpkin shake being both innovative and refreshing, and the diverse in-house musical soundtrack ranges from gangsta rap to boy-band balladry. Y says most customers are Khmer but foreigners have sought out his restaurant as well.

It seems that the vegetarian culinary scene has set roots to grow and grow in Cambodia’s premier tourism town.

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