Judging solely by appearances, the loaves on sale at the Chrizt Ben Bread and Cafe look pretty close to most of the other bread being sold around town – just a bit more yellow, perhaps.
If that yellow hue is enough to pique your curiosity and induce you to take a bite you’ll find each slice soft and fluffy and with a taste that is nothing like typical bland sliced white bread.
That pleasant taste lingering in your mouth comes courtesy of the tender fragrance and natural sweetness of the sugar palm fruit they use in their recipe and it goes great with a cup of coffee.
This one-of-a-kind bread can be found exclusively at Chrizt Ben Bread and Cafe on Street 2011 in the Sen Sok district of the capital.
This sugar palm fruit bread has been brought to the table by Bun Vuthdika, a baker who decided to experiment on his own after many failed attempts trying to convince other bakers to help him create a modern recipe based on the sugar palm fruit.
“I did suggest to some famous bakers in our country to try baking it, but they said it was not possible because the palm fruit would not mix well with the flour. No one was interested, no one was doing it. But I just kept trying to make it work,” Vuthdika says.
Hailing from Kampong Speu province originally, Vuthdika feels a deep connection with the sugar palm. It is a multi-purpose tree that Cambodians have always regarded as important to their national identity thanks to the key role it has often played providing a source of income as well as a materials for use at home.
Traditionally, the sugar palm tree often provided the timber used for construction of homes and the crafting of cooking and eating implements. The leaves have many uses like thatching for roofs and walls. The branches are used as fencing and to make flip flops. And of course the juice and fruits are harvested for consumption.
Desserts made from the sugar palm fruit have always been Vuthdika’s favourite treat, but they aren’t as commonly found in Phnom Penh these days.
“I’m fond of Nom Tnout, the traditional Khmer palm fruit cake, which I usually bought at Am Pae Phnom resort in Kampong Speu. A few years went by and I went back to that same place looking for the cake, and it was nowhere to be found.
“That was the day that I first thought to myself that someday when I own my own bakery and know what I’m doing and have the right equipment, I would make palm fruit bread,” Vuthdika says.
Vuthdika says he learned his baking skills from relatives while he was studying abroad, but it was only just recently that he finally perfected his sugar palm fruit bread recipe and began selling fresh loaves of it to the public.
Chrizt Ben Bread and Cafe opened back in April of this year and once the shop was up and running and Vuthdika had a few moments to spare, he jumped feet first into his sugar palm fruit bread experimentation.
He asked a friend living in Kampong Speu to help find palm fruits for him. His friend passed the news to the villagers who began collecting the fruits for Vuthdika, who buys them for 1,000-2,000 riel ($0.25 to $0.50) each depending on the size.
His friends say the villagers were happy to do so because for the most part no one had been bothering to collect them before now. Previously, they’d just fall from the trees and be left there to rot.
Vuthdika began testing different recipes with the palm fruits. He found that when he applied European-style ingredients and baking techniques, the taste became far too sweet. He then tried reducing the sugar to just 20 per cent, but the taste still wasn’t right.
He then asked a palm fruit expert who told him that the trouble he was having was likely due to the palm fruit having been overripe when it fell from the tree and then stored for too long, greatly increasing its natural sugar content and altering the flavour.
Once he stopped using the palm fruits that had fallen to the ground and had the villagers collect them fresh from the trees he found the balance of natural sweetness he was searching for and made quick progress from there.
After an intense week spent testing and refining his recipe, he decided the sugar palm fruit bread was ready for its debut and he added it to his menu on May 16.
“For 30 loaves of palm fruit bread, we need 15-20 palm fruits. Since we cannot stock them, the moment the delivery arrives we start baking with them right away. If they arrive in the evening, then we start in the evening.
“First we need to peel off the skin and shred it for its flesh and juice before mixing it with the flour and leaving it overnight. The next morning, we flatten and roll it and put it in the oven,” the 41-year-old baker says.
Vuthdika says that his bread can be kept longer without going stale than traditional Khmer palm fruit cake which typically begins to harden after a day. They taste similar to each other because when people eat either of them they get the same unmistakeable flavour of palm fruit, though the intensity differs.
He says his newly-invented bread is doing well so far with his regular patrons and it helps that he keeps it reasonably priced like the rest of the goods in his bakery.
“We bake around 30 loaves of bread each day and we’ve yet to have any unsold leftovers. At the same time we don’t want to bake too many and outpace demand for it. If we have someone call in a special order we can make extra for them, but otherwise we stick to a limited number of loaves because our guiding principle is to sell our goods fresh. Any bread that is left over at the end of the day we will donate to people in need,” the owner says.
Vuthdika says one of the things that interested him about making sugar palm fruit bread was that it was a way to express patriotism and encourage people to take pride in their national identity because the tree is so important to traditional village life in Cambodia.
“I don’t take any pride in what I’ve achieved. I believe anyone can do anything as long as they put their minds to it by having the right attitude. If you do something for the right reasons, more often than not you’ll achieve the right outcome,” he says.
Vuthdika sees sugar palm fruit bread as a niche market, not something that would necessarily do well if marketed more broadly.
However, he does have other unusual recipe ideas he’s working on and at the moment he’s got both spinach bread and pumpkin bread loaves on sale in the bakery – and he says he has several other ideas he’s working on behind closed doors in the kitchen that aren’t ready to debut quite yet.
“I would like to invite everyone to please come and try my palm fruit bread. Everyone is always welcome to visit my bakery and sample the bread to see how tender and delicious it is. Don’t take my word for it and don’t take this reporter’s word for it, either. Come and try it. To see is to believe and if you taste it, you will believe,” he says half-jokingly.
Chrizt Ben Bread and Cafe is open from 6am-9pm every day for dine-in or take-away at #127 St 2011, Sala sangkat Krang Thnung, Khan Sen Sok, Phnom Penh. Orders for delivery can be made via foodpanda.
For more information check out their website https://www.chriztben.com/ or find them on Facebook.