Under the Khmer Rouge, most Cambodians subsisted almost entirely on a diet of borbor. Day after day, the regime’s communal kitchens would serve up a thin, watery version of the rice porridge. Amidst chronic rice shortages, it was used as a way of stretching a tiny portion of rice amongst many more people than is really reasonable.
Since the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, a heartier version of the dish has continued to be a popular, commonly served with a little meat – shredded chicken, congealed blood, pork bits or pig intestine – fried onion, a squeeze of lime and dab of chili. Eaten any time of the day, it’s often described as “comfort food”.
A cheap, humble snack, borbor can be found served in Styrofoam bowls from street carts or market stalls, for only 1,000 or 2,000 riel per bowl, and on the menus of some restaurants.
Now a couple of young Cambodian entrepreneurs are hoping to popularise borbor among the country’s youth and elevate it to the status of national dish.
Saren Tith Tola and Chhan Virak’s new restaurant Khmer Resto, which opened last week near the Chinese Embassy, is the first Phnom Penh restaurant serving Cambodian-style rice porridge as its main dish.
“Everyone knows prahok when they talk about Khmer food or Khmer restaurants, but we want them to know more Khmer food,” said Virak.
According to Virak there are other restaurants in Cambodia that serve “Chinese style” rice porridge, or congee, but Khmer Resto is the only one that selling the Cambodian variety.
He said Cambodian borbor was cooked from a pork or chicken stock base instead of having the meat added later.
“Our porridge is the creative porridge which we already cook for our family and friend to taste,” he said.
When my friends and I arrived for a taste test one afternoon this week, we realised the place was definitely no Brown Coffee.
While some effort has gone into the decor of the open-fronted restaurant, which has rattan ball lamp shades that match half the roof, there wasn’t a lot to distinguish it from any other Cambodian restaurant.
The staff – who seemed a little surprised to see us – were friendly enough though and one of them even spoke a little English and was able to explain the menu.
I always say restaurants should stick to offering a few dishes and do them well. But Khmer Resto seems to have taken this ethos to an extreme.
The restaurant only has four options: borbor served with minced pork ($2), prawns ($2.50), luncheon meat ($2) or the “special” which has all three along with sliced pork and mushrooms ($3). The drinks selection was limited to water and Coke.
After a short wait, one of the staff brought out our borbor in thick white bowls accompanied by condiments, bean sprouts and a sheet of crisp, deep fried rice paper. Each had half a hard-boiled egg, some fried scallions and a piece of deep fried rice paper to go with it.
It was a novel experience sitting down at a real restaurant eating borbor with a metal spoon out of a nice thick white bowl rather than with plastics. The servings were much larger than those from the street carts and I liked not to having to skirt around little bits of pork intestine and liver.
The additions were acceptable. The pork slices were cooked well enough, the minced pork was seasoned nicely and the luncheon meat surprisingly flavoursome. But my prawns didn’t taste as fresh as I’d like and I ended up putting them aside.
The borbor itself didn’t seem exceptional. The texture was smooth and creamy but didn’t taste of much and benefitted greatly from the addition of a dose of chili.
If you’re a borbor fan, definitely check Khmer Resto out – a real aficionado might be able to more fully appreciate the difference between the borbor there and the stuff you get normally.
I also recommend the place to any foreigners keen to try the dish but put off by the diced entrails and congealed blood that normally accompany it at street stalls. It seems a much safer option in regards to hygiene too.
And you’ve got to admire the restaurant’s owners for trying to do something a bit different. Time will tell whether it will catch on.
Khmer Resto is located at #24 street 402.