Despite both being Asian nations located in the Far East, there is little cultural overlap between Cambodia and Mongolia.
But now a Cambodian-American has brought the Mongolian food he enjoyed so much in his former home of California to the Kingdom, hoping that his own favourite dishes will be enjoyed by his compatriots.
The man behind one of Cambodia’s very few Mongolian restaurants is Kaing Bunna, with his new eatery GK Mongolian Noodles – located close to the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge in Chroy Changvar commune – opening this month.
“I decided to open a restaurant in Cambodia because I want to live in my motherland. I also want to bring back this special dish and my favourite food to share with Cambodian people,” he says.
With its simple decoration and black, white and red coloured furniture, the diner’s interior looks much like any other fast food restaurant.
But it’s the unique aroma and giant cooking pan that differentiates this place, luring customers in who are looking for a new dining experience.
Bunna was born in Cambodia, but he was sent by his parents to study in the US at a very young age. He has been interested in food and cooking since childhood.
“I’d always wanted to run my own restaurant and serve my most favourite food,” he says. “My family sent me to study in the US when I was nine. Then my parents moved to California to be close to me so that they could take care of me.”
It was in California that Bunna first tried Mongolian food and fell in love.
“I’m one of those people who has a passion for food and cooking, and what I’ve loved eating most since I was a child back in the US is Mongolian noodles,” he says.
Bunna studied in the US for several years, but last year decided to leave his adopted home and friends and return to his homeland in order to open a restaurant.
“When I graduated from high school, I went to Cerritos College in California to study business. But I quit when I was in my sophomore year and stopped studying because I already had my life goal to open a restaurant. I’m not a school type of person; I could see myself not growing in the right direction if I continued my degree,” he says.
Bunna then did some research about Mongolian food in Cambodia. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014 to promote ties in economics, trade, investment and tourism, but Mongolian food – and even people – remain almost non-existent in Cambodia.
“I could see that in Cambodia, we have a lot of international food from Thailand, Japan, Indonesia and other countries. What we don’t have here is the Mongolian taste,” he says. “I came back to Cambodia last year to start my dream business. At first, it was quite
challenging. I went through some difficulties because I’m not good at speaking Khmer. I could read very little, while writing Khmer is impossible for me as I left Cambodia in grade two. I also don’t know anybody except my auntie, who helps me manage work.”
On May 3, his dream restaurant officially opened. It serves only one dish – Mongolian noodles with a variety of vegetables and meat. One bowl is $6.80, with drinks priced between $0.50 and $0.75.
At the restaurant you select your vegetables from rows of shiny stainless steel trays containing slices of carrot, pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, baby corn, spring onion, tomato, cabbage, zucchini and mushroom.
The noodles are imported from the US as it is more convenient than getting them from Mongolia, while the vegetables are from an organic farm in Cambodia.
In terms of the meat, GK Mongolian Noodles serves chicken, pork and beef.
“The taste of our Mongolian noodles here is the same as what is served in the US,” he says.
With its simple menu providing customers the freedom to choose whatever ingredients they like, a further attraction is that they can watch the chef prepare their noodles on a giant round metal pan in front of them.
“At GK Mongolian Noodles, our service is different from other local noodle restaurants. Customers pay for their food first before they get to pick a variety of the meat and vegetables from row of containers, just like a buffet.
“The best thing is for people who eat less, they can buy just one serving of noodles to share among two people. Customers can get as much meat and vegetables as they can fit into the bowl. If they cannot finish the noodles, they can bring the leftovers home,” Bunna explains.
GK Mongolian Noodles is open from 10:30am to 9pm seven days a week. It is offering a 20 per cent introductory discount until June 3. They can be contacted on Facebook (@GK.PHNOMPENH) or via telephone (078 499 289).