It's rare to find an eatery where you can watch your food being grown before you dig in, but Banlle Restaurant in Siem Reap is one such restaurant.
The vegetarian restaurant is located inside a beautifully restored wooden bungalow that recalls a simpler time when meals weren’t full of stabilisers and pesticides.
Walking in, diners are greeted with the sight of fresh zucchini being grown, with a number of the dishes on the menu notably featuring the vegetable.
Banlle promotes healthy eating by sourcing organic produce directly from its on-site garden and other ingredients from a nearby local market.
Diners can choose between dining in the comfort of the air-conditioned dining room or the open-air al fresco seating in the garden.
There, the scent of organic taro, galangal, Chinese ginger and pineapple tantalises the senses, while heaps of cucumber, morning glory, tomato and eggplant, and row upon row of yam tempt eaters as they eye the menu.
Everything served at Banlle Restaurant is 100 per cent vegetarian, and everything grown in the on-site vegetable garden is said to be grown with the aid of natural compost. There’s no red meat, chicken, fish or even a plastic straw anywhere on site.
Owner Siv Pola explains that among the goals of the restaurant is to promote vegetarianism, environmentalism and to raise awareness of animal rights.
He told The Post that forgoing meat for organically grown vegetables would have less impact on the environment.
“The global demand for meat is creating pressure on the supply chain, so farmers inject growth hormones into livestock and poultry for a shorter meat production cycle,” Pola says.
His menu is a gift to anyone who has turned vegetarian but still has the craving for the odd meat-based dish.
Tofu is used extensively and creatively to recreate familiar flavours, along with mushroom, beans and zucchini.
“Our Super Food TofuBurger uses mushrooms as the main ingredient, and in our version of lok lak, meat is replaced with tofu.
“As for the Vegan Fish and Chips, the battered banana flower is deep-fried to replace the fish protein, while mixed vegetables are used to cook the traditional Khmer amok,” he says.
Prices start at $3.50. Patrons can also order from a variety of fresh juices to wash down their meal, with options including shaken callaloo, jackfruit, cabbage and pineapple juice.
Other gems on the menu are the grilled long eggplant and crispy tofu tomato with bean sprouts.
When the restaurant first opened in 2015, flowers were grown where the vegetable garden now lies, Pola explains that it was important that his guests were able to see the food that they’re going to eat is grown just a few feet from their tables.
“We want customers to know where the food they eat is sourced from because some guests have no idea what lemongrass or an eggplant looks like,” he says.
Most of the produce sold at the market is grown with an eye towards quantity over quality, Pola says, which encourages farmers to use unsavoury practices like pesticides and fertilisers to increase their yields.
For this reason, Pola says he sources ingredients from markets himself and sometimes buys supplies from smaller communities in addition to International Cambodia and HAPPY + CO Farm.
It’s a long way from where Pola was 20 years ago when he left his job as a dishwasher at a Siem Reap hotel to travel to the Middle East to cut his teeth as a chef. From there, he enrolled as a student at a Swiss culinary course but still worked part-time to support his mother back home.
Pola returned to Cambodia in 2011 to open Mey Cafe, which he ran for seven years before deciding to become a farmer and chef.
Pola says that although Banlle is the culmination of a lifelong dream, he isn’t fully an advocate of following a strict vegetable-based diet, despite the environmental and health concerns associated with eating meat.
“We have to get the balance right, where farmers should raise animals naturally without injecting chemicals to meet demand,” he says.
Banlle Restaurant is located in Siem Reap town on Street 26 in Wat Bo Village. It is open from Wednesday to Monday from 11am to 9:30pm.
For more information, visit their website (banlle-vegetarian.com) or call 85 330 160 to make a reservation.