Rajan Vatsayan claims that being a vegetarian only serves to heighten his culinary senses
In a nation where most things living are fair game for dinner, one vegetarian is on a mission to provide for his fellow herbivores.
Originally from just outside Mumbai in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Rajan Vatsayan said he came to Phnom Penh five months ago with the specific aim of providing the Kingdom with a wealth of vegetarian options.
“People don’t have many options with vegetarian food in Phnom Penh, but vegetarian people should have all kinds of food,” he said.
His spartan but lively restaurant, which is attached to his vegetarian minimart near the Central Market, provides savoury meatless dishes from his homeland, such as matar paneer ($4.50), aloo gobi ($3.25), and huge thali platters ($11).
With no meat in the kitchen, it’s among the few places in Cambodia where vegetarians can be guaranteed that no animal parts come near the food – not a dash of fish sauce could be found in the lentils, nor would utensils ever be shared with a batch of mutton curry.
In a city full of Indian options, Vatsayan stressed that Besto had more to offer than simply dishes from the subcontinent.
Alongside the curry, for instance, are nachos ($2.50) and vegetarian hot dogs made of corn ($2.50).
Vatsayan said he was particularly proud of his falafels ($2.75), which are burrito-sized and smothered in a deliciously tangy yogurt sauce.
“If you try our falafel, you will see it is as good as in Lebanon,” he said.
When asked how he mastered so many dishes from around the world, Vatsayan compared his knack for vegetarian delights to the heightened non-visual senses of blind people.
“Vegetarianism is our disability,” he joked.
In less than five months, Besto has already proven a hit with vegetarian expats. Diner Kenny Gerchow, the Panamanian-American assistant general manager of the Vine Retreat in Kep, said it was arguably the best value option in town for herbivores.
“It’s the only pure veg Indian I’ve heard of in Cambodia,” said Gerchow, adding that he eats at Besto regularly when he’s in town.
He scoffed at criticism that the sparse interior design detracted from the restaurant.
“What I love about this place is that there’s no ambience – the people make the ambience.”
That ambience is largely defined by Vatsayan himself, who humorously preaches the meatless lifestyle to his omnivore customers.
Though his lifelong vegetarianism stems from his faith, he put his views in secular terms.
“When you watch videos of the way cows and chickens are slaughtered, I’m sure anyone who will watch those videos will give up meat immediately,” he lectured amiably, adding that he believed all animals to be sentient.
“They do speak, but their language is not what we speak.”
He didn’t have anything to nice to say about free-range meat either, which he considered to be walking colonies of pathogens.
“They are wandering in the street eating everything, and it’s passed on to human beings,” he said, adding that vegetarianism is optimal for the human digestive tract.
Vegetarianism, he admitted, is virtually unknown within Khmer culture. But he said a few of his Cambodian regulars have begun experimenting with meatless diets. The predominant Theravada Buddhism of Cambodia, he added, lent itself well to vegetarianism.
“Buddhism is non-violent, so historically [Khmers] should be vegetarian.”
Despite his culinary evangelism, meat eaters need not fear Vatsayan, whose bespectacled face and kindly demeanour project the air of a caring grandfather.
His food is not just for vegetarians – between his passionate cooking and low prices, Besto is among the city’s best new bargains.
Besto is located at #74-76 Street 126 near the corner of Monivong Boulevard