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At Phka Slaa, Khmer food for a picky palate

The four main dishes of the lunch set, including tofu with morning glory and a pork rib stew.
The four main dishes of the lunch set, including tofu with morning glory and a pork rib stew. Heng Chivoan

At Phka Slaa, Khmer food for a picky palate

Phka Slaa, a new Khmer restaurant geared towards foodie-foreigners, recently opened its doors in a tourist-friendly area on Street 240. The aim, says South African co-owner Benjamin Thomalla, is to alter Khmer recipes to a foreign palate and present them in a high-class manner – at a reasonable price.

“There are a lot of people who do not experience Cambodian food because they do not want to sit on the blue plastic chairs on the side of the street,” Thomalla says.

An expat himself for about six years and the owner of upscale restaurant Chinese House, Thomalla says Phka Slaa should help overcome foreigners’ reservations about eating local cuisine.

For lunch, Phka Slaa offers a $6 lunch-set with four rotating main dishes, a dessert and white rice, and there is also an a la carte menu. Post Weekend enjoyed the deep-fried pumpkin flowers filled with minced pork, prawn and vermicelli.

The result is a flavourful dumpling-like morsel with a roasted red pepper dip on the side ($4.5). The most expensive item is the whole steamed fish ($11) with num banhchok (a Cambodian wide rice noodle), herbs and tamarind sauce. The dish is well worth the price and can serve two to three.

Food aside, the two-storey restaurant offers an airy and comfortable space with walls decorated with paintings and photographs that commemorate the country’s past. The face of 1960s pop icon Pan Ron looks down on diners.

Head chef Seng Darat, trained by NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, comes with nearly a decade of kitchen experience and has tweaked his recipes for the tourist-heavy area.

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The stylish dining room at Phka Slaa. Heng Chivoan

He reckons that most foreigners want the strong tastes and smells in many Khmer dishes – due to prahok, the iconic fermented fish paste, and the variety of spices used – to be toned down. In doing so, he has substituted a host of ingredients in the original recipes.

“Although we change the recipes, we try to keep the originality as much as possible,” he says. “We use only fresh meats and vegetables, and concentrate very carefully on the cooking process, even the smallest detail.”

Darat is not a purist; he has no compunction about altering the Khmer recipes, and for him, no one element of a cuisine is superior or inferior to another. The key, he says, is finding the right replacements.

“When we omit an ingredient, it is very important to add a similar ingredient. For example, many of our target customers do not like the smell and strong tastes of prahok, so we substitute it with fish sauce instead,” he says.

Phka Slaa Restaurant is located at #15 Street 240 on the corner with Street 19. It is open every day from 10am to 10 pm. Tel: 023 990 652

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