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Cashing in on a salted staple

Owner Vann Sam with a plate of salted freshwater crabs.
Owner Vann Sam with a plate of salted freshwater crabs. Pha Lina

Cashing in on a salted staple

Vann Sam trades primarily in two items: cars and crabs. In February, the automobile dealer entered an untapped market in the city’s food industry by opening Kdam Brai, a restaurant devoted to salted crab, near Wat Phnom.

Like the more renowned prahok, kdam brai is a preserved food made in the countryside in households where refrigeration is not an option. To make it, people pickle the raw crabs caught in lakes, ponds, or paddy fields in a closed container of brine. After a day or two, the crabs become edible and can be kept for weeks.

Sam, 36, has loved kdam brai as a side dish to go with steamed rice and green papaya salad since he was a child. While few see it as special, he saw a business opportunity within the pickled crustaceans.

“Most Cambodian people can eat kdam brai, and many like it, but the problem is that they have difficulty finding a crab good enough to eat,” Sam says. “Without careful preparation and processing, eating it could lead to health problems such as diarrheoa and food-poisoning.”

For consumers, this uncertainty creates anxiety about purchasing kdam brai sold at the market. For Sam, providing crabs with assured quality and good taste is the mission.

To that end, he says the restaurant buys only fresh crabs from the countryside and washes them with clean water for hours before pickling. The staff then brushes each crab carefully with toothbrushes to ensure their cleanness.

“We name our restaurant after kdam brai, which we want to turn into our signature dish,” Sam says. “So it will be devastating for us if any customer suffers from eating it, so we cannot afford any mistake.”

Samlor mchou pong trey soup.
Samlor mchou pong trey soup. Pha Lina

Sam also found a new way to prepare the crab. Instead of pickling it in the traditional solution of water and salt, he stores them in jars of fish sauce, adding ingredients such as chili pepper and garlic. They are kept there overnight before being served.

During a recent weekday lunch hour, Sam’s restaurant was bustling with office workers. Many ordered the plate of salted crab ($3.5), served with Thai basil and lime. The heads are eaten by stuffing rice into the shell, which is then scooped out alongside the crab meat. The raw flesh of the crabs is tender with a spicy and salty flavour.

Other popular dishes include the sach kor maom ($6), tender fried beef with deep-fried red garlic, as well as homemade chili sauce made from hot pepper, garlic and lime juice, and samlor mchou pong trey, a sour soup with fish eggs, morning glory and tangerine.

While the restaurant is popular among Cambodians, Sam also hopes more expatriates – with adventurous and hardened stomachs - will come to try the specialty.

“Westerners might find kdam brai unappetising, but it is in fact an important part of the Cambodian diet and life, especially in the countryside,” he says. “I will not be angry if they do not like it, but they should at least try it when they are in Cambodia.”

Kdam Brai Restaurant is located at #41 on Street 90, near Wat Phnom. It is open every day from 7am to 10pm. Tel: 093 333 333

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