They came from throughout Phnom Penh in search of good Indian cuisine. And they tried every Indian restaurant in the city. They even googled and checked out TripAdvisor, but they continued to be disappointed as the food was not “authentic” as claimed.
In time, one after another and by word of mouth, the Indian expatriates in Cambodia found Swagat Indian Restaurant. Located on St 278, a minute’s walk from Wat Langka, it is now the “go-to” place for North and South Indian cuisine.
A small restaurant that just seats 26 people at a time, Swagat, which means “welcome” in Sanskrit, is today recognised by Indian expatriates as the best place to dine for the real taste of home-cooked food.
But the Swagat story doesn’t end there. Since it opened in February last year, the restaurant has even gained a following among French, German, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Mexican, Brazilian and South African patrons, among others, many of whom have also become regulars.
Strangers at first, the familiar faces soon became friends, and the informal Swagat club was born. Now some of them meet each Saturday night for a family-like gathering of ardent fans of Indian fare.
Executive Prashanth Shetty is a regular who came to know about Swagat quite by accident. He says he met Ashok Kumar, the restaurant’s owner, while walking on the street one day.
“We started chatting and Ashok mentioned that he ran a restaurant on St 278. As a foodie who loves to try new places, I was rather sceptical at the quality of the food he served. After all, I too had been to so many Indian restaurants recommended by TripAdvisor and other sites. None pleased me.
“But I had an open mind and decided to give it a try. I am so pleased with the food I had that I returned repeatedly. Now I am a regular and part of the Swagat club,” he says.
German national Frank Reichardt who is the general manager of a graphics company says he loves the food at Swagat.
“I enjoy spicy food as I worked in India for a while and developed a taste for it. Like many others, I too searched high and low for a good Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh.
“Believe it or not, there are far better Indian restaurants in Germany than you have in Cambodia. And I had almost given up finding a good Indian restaurant until I was recommended to Swagat,” he says.
Reichardt says he likes a special German dish called “Spinat und Spiegeleier mit Salzkartoffeln”, or spinach with potatoes and fried eggs. “The dish is done very well here but needs to be pre-ordered as it’s not on the menu.
“At first, I had to explain the dish to the restaurant’s owner, and after a trial round, I advised them to make it less spicy. Now it’s perfect and that is a testament to the quality of its chefs,” he says.
Another regular, Amaladass Singarayer, is the service manager at an automobile company in Cambodia. He says he loves the warmth and friendly environment that Swagat offers.
“It’s a small and cosy restaurant. The staff is friendly too, but most importantly, the food tastes great. Swagat dishes up the most authentic North and South Indian cuisine you can find in Phnom Penh. I should know . . . it’s my native diet.
“My favourites are the eggplant masala with garlic naan and dum biryani,” says Amaladass.
Ashok is originally from Bangalore, in South India. He came to Cambodia 16 years ago to work for a pharmaceutical company and soon fell in love with Cambodian Prum Navy. The couple married eight years ago and have two kids aged seven and three.
“I started the restaurant as I missed good Indian food. I tried many restaurants but always felt some ingredient was missing. I love food and I wanted to make a difference in the quality and taste of Indian cuisines.
“Apart from this, I wanted to have a restaurant where Indian nationals can come to enjoy home-cooked food just like their families back in India. But I could not have done it without my wife’s help and support.
“Navy has always been by my side, especially during the early days when we hardly had any customers. Swagat grew only by word of mouth as I have never advertised or done any marketing at all,” he says.
Ashok says his most popular dishes such as chicken garlic tikka, chicken tandoori, onion pakoda and dum biryani are his regulars’ all-time favourites.
As to why his die-hard patrons call Swagat the best Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh, Ashok says it has all to do with “passion”.
“All our food is freshly cooked. We know we can sell about 20 plates of biryani a day, so that is all we cook. If customers ask for biryani after it has been sold out, we just apologise and tell them that we don’t have it.
“Even our meat, vegetables and other ingredients are delivered daily and are very fresh. This makes a huge difference in the food quality and taste. I only make a small profit from the restaurant because I want people to come and enjoy good food,” he says.
One of his chefs is from Nepal and two are from India. They were specially hired for their expertise in preparing authentic North and South Indian dishes, Ashok says.