Chef Veasna Kay is building his career on the internet’s insatiable appetite for food content. Amidst a class of amateur and professional chefs making short tutorials on Facebook and YouTube, he’s certainly the only one who’s focused on Khmer home cooking.
Veasna, 30, has been in and out of the kitchen since he was a child, when he learned to cook from his mother in rural Kampong Cham province. He features many of his mother’s recipes on his YouTube channel and Facebook page, where he’s netted thousands of views.
Shy and slender, Veasna speaks softly, but in his kitchen, he moves with confidence.
“I stayed always with my mother in the kitchen,” he says. “She would say to me, ‘Veasna fetch water for me; Veasna cut vegetables for me.’”
Once he moved to Phnom Penh, in his 20s, Veasna found himself working odd jobs as a cook in restaurants and bars.
Seven years ago, he also met his husband, Englishman Niall Crotty, the former owner of the Empire movie house. Veasna ran the kitchen until they sold the cinema a year ago; the menu retains his imprint.
Veasna wanted to pursue a career as a private chef, and got hooked on foreign tutorial videos.
“He’s [gotten] a lot of inspiration from Jamie Oliver’s YouTube videos,” Crotty says. “But there wasn’t anything like that for Khmer food.” Veasna nods in agreement.
Just over a month ago, the pair launched the online cooking show together. They quickly transformed the kitchen of their apartment on riverside into a chef’s studio. Crotty shoots the videos on his smartphone and edits them on his laptop. “It’s all been an experiment,” he says.
So far, Veasna and Crotty have produced over half a dozen videos, all around one or two minutes long. The recipes Veasna uses are simple, requiring ingredients readily available at the market. They’re also classics, like a recipe for Khmer style laab, or minced pork.
While there’s no audio narration, Veasna guides his audience through the preparation with a smile and bird’s-eye views of the slicing, dicing, peeling and stovetop action. It’s supplemented by text instructions in English and Khmer.
“Khmer food cooks quickly. Western food is slower,” Veasna says. “My videos are short and can be experienced by all.”
Post Weekend was treated to Veasna’s grilled aubergine with pork at the apartment studio. True to the video, the dish’s preparation is straightforward, and it hits the table in the space of 15 minutes. As for the taste, it’s not fine dining, but it’s definitely home cooking.
“We’re keeping it as authentic simple Khmer as possible, MSG optional,” Crotty says.
Veasna in the Kitchen may be the first iteration of short online video focused on Khmer cooking, but he does join a host of Instagrammers sharing Khmer recipes, like the chefs behind @tastyprahok, an account with over 40,000 followers, or @khmerfoodie_mb, who describes herself as a Cambodian mother in Texas and has an audience of 70,000.
And while the YouTube channel doesn’t have nearly as many subscribers, some of the videos posted to Veasna’s Facebook have received as many as 35,000 views. The most popular? His Khmer caramelised pork and egg.
Veasna in the Kitchen has received sponsorships from local brands, like car company MG Cambodia and fashion retailer Melrose Ave.
Crotty says the pair hopes to further capitalise on the videos by offering food tours with trips to local markets and a home-cooking class included. It’s also earned Veasna the highest approval: his mother’s commendation. “She said, ‘You’re cleverer [at cooking] than me now,” he says.
His recommendation: Aubergine with pork
Ingredients: two large aubergines, pork (200g), three cloves of garlic, olive oil (1tbsp), two sprigs of spring onion, oyster sauce (1tbsp), sugar (5tsp), stock (1tsp).
Barbecue the aubergine over a flame until it is charred, and soft to touch. Peel the skin and discard it. Clean the remaining flesh in water, and set aside. Mince the pork into small pieces, with a rolling pin – the Cambodian way. Add olive oil to a pan and heat, then add the pork and fry until brown. Add seasoning and let simmer for one minute. Add the peeled aubergine and cook for another two or three minutes until the flavours have combined. Remove from the pan, and serve with spring onion.
The most popular: Caramelised pork and egg
Ingredients: pork (500g), five eggs, five cloves of garlic, two small red chillies, palm sugar (300g), salt (1/2tbsp), fish sauce (1tsp), water (2 cups), MSG (1tsp), stock (1tsp).
Chop the pork into chunks. Add palm sugar to a heated pan until it melts. Add the chopped garlic and red chillies. Add water, then salt, stock, MSG and fish sauce. Pour the mixture over the cut pork into a new saucepan, bringing everything to a simmer. Hard boil the eggs, remove the shell and add them to the pan. Continue cooking until the flavours have combined and caramelisation has occurred. Serve with rice.