In a refurbished Khmer wooden house, tucked away behind a pagoda, and across the river from the chaos of Siem Reap’s old market and Pub Street, 28-year-old chef Mork Mengly is reinventing Cambodian cuisine – though he’s too humble to admit it.
“The food here is not very original . . . but I mixed it up,” he said last week in the upstairs kitchen of Pou Restaurant and Bar.
What he means is that the recipes aren’t created purely from his imagination but are rooted in countryside cooking. The core concept behind his menu, which features just a handful of starters, mains and desserts, is to take the type of food eaten in rural homes, on the street and in the “jungle”, and to shake up and reinterpret those recipes. The result is achieved with style and at reasonable prices.
“The dishes from . . . the very [real] countryside, and ingredients from the jungle, a lot of people, they don’t know those . . . They’re used to trying usually amok, curry, but I wanted to do something different,” he explains.
One such unexpected example is the Num Krok starter with grilled beehive ($4), which remakes a common street food – chive dumplings made from rice-flour and coconut cream – by adding a fermented radish and galangal sauce and a chunk of honeycomb grilled in banana leaf.
Mengly’s requirement is that preparation is simple and quick – a parameter that excludes the commonly served amok, which in reality is more of a “once a month” or “once a year” dish for most Cambodians, as the preparation takes a full day of work and two hours of cooking.
Instead you’ll find mains like the special last week, soon to be on the menu – a succulent Khmer-style chicken grilled over a charcoal pot accompanied by a peppery curry sauce ($6.50) artfully spread across the plate.
The flavour achieved is recognisably “very attached to the main flavours of Cambodia”, Mengly says, with the label “fusion” on the sign a bit of a misnomer, albeit an easier concept for foreign patrons to latch onto.
From time to time Mengly will bring in some foreign ingredients, such as the Grilled Mackerel ($4.50), spiced with chili flakes, and served with turmeric rice, with a beet root sauce on the plate and a light wasabi mayonnaise, turned blue by butterfly pea flowers.
His cocktails also have an element of fusion, like the refreshing vodka-based POU Mok ($2.75), which is flavoured with an amok syrup or, after dinner, a jungle berry-infused rice wine digestif ($2).
The eldest son in a family with three sisters, Mengly grew up watching his parents cook in the rural village of Dam Dek in Siem Reap province. He graduated from the hospitality school École Paul Dubrule, and went on to work for hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for several years. His last job was as a consultant designing the menu for Spoons restaurant. The idea to start Pou with his friend and business partner Hang Bora came from a trip to Singapore earlier this year.
“In terms of food there’s a lot to see there,” he said. In Singapore he was inspired by venues like My Awesome Café and the Michelin-starred “street food” venue Liao Fan’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle – while also noticing a pattern that many successful independent chefs had emerged from the kitchens of fancy hotels or resorts.
“So I am thinking, yeah, why not? Maybe I am the one [to do so] in the future too,” he said. “So when I came back I decided to quit my job and renovate this place and run the whole menu.”
After opening in June he put his mind to culinary innovation and travelled throughout the Kingdom. On a camping trip to Phnom Kulen, he recalls, he met a man who had lost both legs to landmines who made incredible sausages using herbs and spices from his garden.
“He showed me a lot of passion,” he said. “I want to share stories like that with the people.”
As for the name, Mengly called the restaurant Pou because the vendors at the market call him “uncle”. As far as The Post is concerned, it’s an appropriate name – reflecting a mastery behind his work that belies his young age.
See Mengly in action: