Num banhchok (Cambodian rice noodles) have long made Preah Dak commune of Banteay Srei district famous as a food tourist destination and now steamed palm cake is gaining popularity as a local specialty.
Soth Thou, 40, a palm leaf weaver with 20 years of experience, changed her occupation to making the steamed palm cake during the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
At present, Thou sells between 50 and 60 kilograms of steamed palm cake per day on weekends and holidays.
“The important thing is that we pay close attention to hygiene and we clean all of the materials. We also use good palm sugar products, including only ripe palm fruits from Banteay Srei district, and this has made my steamed palm cakes very widely popular,” she told The Post.
Before the lockdown, when there was an abundance of domestic and international tourists in the district to see Banteay Srei temple and Phnom Bok, she made boxes from woven palm leaves called smok package and she knew several Chinese tourist guides who helped her sell them because Chinese visitors often bought them as souvenirs.
She began making little steamed palm cakes as a side business, not expecting to get so much support.
Soon thereafter a Facebook video producer made a promotional video about the steamed palm cakes and Khim Finan, the former governor of Banteay Srei district, also provided support and helped promote them.
Thou’s steamed palm cakes rapidly sold out and attracted many new customers in the province as well as Phnom Penh residents and people from other provinces.
Finan who is currently the deputy governor of Siem Reap posted some pictures of the cakes with captions describing the potential of food tourism in Preah Dak commune and mentioning that the steamed palm cakes were the pride of the village.
“If you pass through the village of Preah Dak, do not forget to try the cakes and support our community. I can guarantee you that they are delicious, the cakes are soft and they smell like real palm fruit. But if you want to eat hot cakes, you’ll have to wait in line for a long time because every day there are a lot of buyers and they almost can’t keep up with the number of customers. They sell the cakes as a family,” he wrote.
Thou started out producing 5kg of flour per day before increasing to 30-40kg per day on weekdays and 50-60kg on weekends and other holidays.
With the help of more than 10 employees, Thou uses her own recipe that is based on the recipe she got from her mother who used to squeeze palm fruits and mix them with flour dough and leave it for a while before mixing it with coconut milk and palm sugar and then cutting out individual cakes and steaming them.
“I mix the dough with palm sugar, leave it for long enough, then mix it with palm fruit and coconut milk and leave that for half an hour to an hour and then we can start steaming. With this recipe, it’s so faster than in the past when we had to leave it for hours,” she said.
A change for the better
“This is a technique I made myself. Before I could make the new recipe for myself, I had to test it out and I spoiled my cakes many times. In general, there were a lot of failures before I reached success,” she said.
The reason why she wanted to make the new recipe of mixing the palm fruit with flour was because she wanted a faster way to steam the cakes that did not require leaving the mixture alone for two to three hours. The trick is to use a small amount of today’s cake flour to mix into tomorrow’s to speed up the yeast fermentation process.
Preah Dak commune chief Phin Thong acknowledges that in addition to the temples in Banteay Srei district, the steam palm cakes at Preah Dak village are also an important tourist attraction now.
Thong tells The Post: “At Preah Dak, we have palm sugar producers, weavers, num banhchok stalls and a temple nearby. And now there is also a very popular steamed palm cake.”
As a smok maker, the owner of the steamed palm cake stall at Preah Dak uses varied designs of smok as packaging materials for the cakes to help the environment and create more attractive packaging in general.
A foam box of steamed palm cakes with 10 cakes inside costs 10,000 riel but there are only 9 cakes in the smok box, which is more popular among customers.
“Generally, guests order to pack the cakes in smok which looks clean and they can also keep the smok for other purposes after finishing the cake. I recommend the guests to pack in the smok because it does not harm the environment and it can store cakes for up to two or three days without spoiling. Most of the foam boxes are used by clients in this district only,” she said.
Run Ramana, 38, a resident of Mondol Bei village in Siem Reap town, is one of Thou’s clients who usually comes to buy the steamed palm cakes at least once a week.
“I usually buy only one box for my family but sometimes when there are a lot of people, I will buy four or five boxes. Today, I bought one box of cakes for three people,” she told The Post.
She added that in addition to the palm cakes, she goes to the village to buy brown rice and there are also brown ice cream cakes and she especially likes the Preah Dak noodles, because the noodles there are famous for being delicious.
Former Banteay Srei district governor Finan posted on his Facebook page last October that “the steamed palm cake is becoming the new identity of Banteay Srei district and has flourished in Preah Dak village and has created additional jobs and income to support the livelihood of the community.”
“I am happy that the villagers know how to use the locally sourced palm fruits and know to maintain both clean and environmentally friendly rural packaging,” he wrote, adding a phone number and a map link to the stall.
Now in Preah Dak village there are at least six stalls selling steamed palm cakes, including Thou’s stall and one owned by her younger sister.
Although there are many stalls selling the steamed palm cake, she said that she is not worried about the competition as customers will still choose to buy hers, but she did admit it has lowered her overall sales some.
She said that steaming the palm cakes takes about a half an hour in one pan with one layer that can hold between 60 and 80 cakes or a pan with three layers that can hold more than 200 cakes.
She talked about some of the challenges, like when an entire day’s batch of flour did not work well with the yeast, so the cakes tasted fine but didn’t look right. Instead of throwing it out she continued to steam the flour into cakes to give to children and the provincial hospitals and pagodas for free.
“When the flour did not work with yeast, we steamed the cakes and gave them to the hospital patients for free. When customers bought the cakes and gave them to pagodas, I also gave them a few extra boxes for free,” said Thou.