Amid growing economy, Khmer street foods going upmarket

The Khmer Chicken Porridge restaurant serves up Cambodian comfort food in a comfortable and hygienic setting.
The Khmer Chicken Porridge restaurant serves up Cambodian comfort food in a comfortable and hygienic setting. Kimberley McCosker

Amid growing economy, Khmer street foods going upmarket

Samkol Sangvar’s rice porridge eatery is just one of many new businesses putting traditional Cambodian street and market foods in a restaurant setting

At Khmer Chicken Porridge, which opened near Kandal market earlier this month, kitchen staff in clean, bright green uniforms serve up the classic Cambodian comfort food to hungry diners seated at varnished wooden tables. It’s not exactly fine dining, but it’s still a far cry from the rice porridge carts that prowl the city streets serving up the dish, known as bobor, in styrofoam bowls.

Owner Samkol Sangvar said he had not always been successful in business, but was sure he was on to a winner serving up his family’s porridge recipe – 2,500 riel for a bowl or $1 with extra chicken – in a more refined setting.

Krahom Noodle is Phnom Penh’s most stylish noodle bar.
Krahom Noodle is Phnom Penh’s most stylish noodle bar. Eli Meixler

“My wife and mother had the idea of opening a porridge restaurant, and I decided to make the new innovation because people like things that are new and modern,” he said at the Street 154 restaurant. “Before, people could only get porridge in the market or on the street.”

Samkol is not the only Phnom Penh business owner putting traditional Cambodian street and market foods into a restaurant setting.

Near the Russian Market, the slickly designed sandwich store Nom Pang is routinely packed at lunchtime serving up Cambodian-style baguette sandwiches.

“There was no quality bread sandwich ... place with good decoration and good price before – I found only some meatball or noodle places with good service in the last few years,” said founder Sir Monira-Daniel said.

“I think it is good to have more restaurants that sell food with good quality and comfortable interiors with good price, because Cambodian people nowadays search for the best place with healthy food,” he said.

Num Pang does a roaring trade in baguette sandwiches.
Num Pang does a roaring trade in baguette sandwiches. Eli Meixler

He hoped the high standard of interior design would attract both local and foreigner customers to his shop.

“I make the food fast and good quality – I have a passion to do it. We have high, middle and lower class customers because we have good hygiene and good flavour at a good price,” he said.

With the Cambodian economy growing at 7 per cent each year on average, innovative new small businesses were popping up across the city “like mushrooms”, said economist Srey Chanthy.

“Good innovation with the decoration, air-conditioning, quality of food hygiene, good service but still with good prices are now the main criteria to attract customers,” Chanthy said, adding that the number of new businesses was a good indicator of Cambodian economic growth.

“This trend is forcing the old places to upgrade to a better standard,” he said. “If they don’t update, the customers have the choice to go elsewhere.

“All of these small business are leading to economic growth because they create jobs like chefs and waiters and are better to work for than garment factories.”

Even in a restaurant setting, Khmer Chicken Porridge’s dishes cost only 2,500 riel.
Even in a restaurant setting, Khmer Chicken Porridge’s dishes only cost 2,500 riel. Kimberley McCosker

However, Chanthy, the president of the Cambodian Economic Association, warned that prospective new business owners needed to do their research.

“Some businesses are successful because they go upmarket, but some still fail,” he said.

Sue Sineth, manager of the stylish Krahom Noodle Bar in Street 322, which serves up traditional kuy teav noodle soup coloured with beetroot, said the company’s marketing strategy was all about healthy and high-quality food in a nice environment.

“We hope to get the customers’ attention with the healthy ingredients,” she said. “We make our product high quality, unique and attractive.”

However, Sineth said the company had plans to not only open more outlets in Phnom Penh to serve Cambodia’s middle class but also to expand into other ASEAN countries.

“Our goal is to see Cambodian brands recognised internationally,” she said.

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