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Serving up authentic food from the home of reggae and Rastas

A plate of jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans.
A plate of jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans. Athena Zelandonii

Serving up authentic food from the home of reggae and Rastas

Tropicana, the first authentic Jamaican restaurant in Cambodia, opened last Friday, offering a selection of dishes inspired by owner Dwight Hayden’s family recipes.

Born in Jamaica but raised in New York, Hayden – who also has a booking agency for DJs, live music and international artists – had long aspired to open a restaurant somewhere, and after coming to Cambodia in 2014 on holiday, he realised the Kingdom was the perfect place to do it.

“Nothing was here when I came here the first time two years ago, not even Burger King or [Dominos] pizza,” he said. “But that shows the growth here.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of a growing economy so you cannot get better than this.”

Jamaican food draws on a variety of cultural influences, including Spanish and British colonisers, as well as the indigenous Arawak people. However, African slaves, brought to the island as forced labour, arguably had the strongest influence on Jamaican cuisine. About 95 per cent of present-day Jamaicans are of partial or total African descent.

The Tropicana restaurant is located in a converted villa.
The Tropicana restaurant is located in a converted villa. Athena Zelandonii

One of the key dishes in the country’s cuisine is jerk, or marinated, barbecue. Hayden said that the jerk seasoning is made up of a series of spices of which allspice and thyme are the most important. He also explained that since Cambodia is on the same line of latitude as Jamaica, many of the spices needed for Jamaican cuisine are grown here – though he’s not into Kampot pepper.

“We have to get the pepper directly from the Caribbean because the pepper in Cambodia is different; there is too much water in the soil,” he explained.

Hayden said that even though most Cambodians have never experienced Caribbean food or any foods of the African diaspora, the jerk and curry flavor of Jamaican cuisine evoke a similar satisfaction to eating Khmer barbeque and curry.

“Jerk is a level beyond barbeque because you’re basically dehydrating the meat and then putting sauce back on it to get better juices inside,” he explained.

Several colourful murals decorate Tropicana’s walls.
Several colourful murals decorate Tropicana’s walls. Athena Zelandonii

“We have more Khmer people reaching out to us than foreigners because it is something different, and they like barbeque, so the jerk part of the Jamaican food attracts them,” he said.

A jerk chicken meal, which includes a chopped chicken thigh smothered in jerk gravy accompanied with a choice of one side dish and a salad, is priced at $6.90. Almost all of its other meals, including the curry chicken, oxtail, jerk pork, and escovitch fish [marinated in a pepper-vinegar dressing] go for $7.90. And all of its “Rasta Pastas” range between $6 and $8.

“We purchase some ingredients locally, but there are obviously some really important spices we can’t get locally, so we purchase them either from New York or Okinawa, Japan, which is very Caribbean oriented, or from Jamaica directly”, he said. “When you look at our menu and see something really expensive, that’s where we had to get our ingredients from Jamaica, and when you see it’s cheap, that’s where we got the ingredients locally.”

Although the food selections offered at Jamaican restaurants around the world are very similar, the secret ingredients and techniques used from family recipes passed down for generations make Tropicana’s food selections taste even better, according to Hayden.

Tropicana’s decor evokes a Jamaican bungalow.
Tropicana’s decor evokes a Jamaican bungalow. Athena Zelandonii

The Jamaican theme doesn’t stop with the food: Most days Bob Marley songs waft through the restaurant’s speakers, and a series of murals depict black women in Afro-centric garb. There’s also a bar inside and island-oriented signature cocktails.

“There are so many differences between Khmer food and Jamaican food, because even though the ingredients are here, I think they are lacking in the culinary department,” Hayden said. “I think that everything they went through with the war and the fact that it is still a young, developing country, a lot of their food is based off of things they had to use to survive. We love spice in both the Caribbean and here because of the temperature of the countries: Both are hot tropical countries, so I think spice grows well [in both places]. There are big cultural differences, but Cambodia still reminds me a lot of Jamaica.”

Tropicana Caribbean Restaurant is located at #21AB, Street184. Tel: 011 492 122.

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