Joelle Jean Louis (left) and Lionel Maitrepierre, the masterminds behind the new drink. Photograph: Nicky Sullivan
Nights in Siem Reap are about to take a spicier, fruitier turn, if such could be possible. And it’s all down to Sombai, a new range of infused rice wines: the ingredients are all Cambodian but the inspirations come from abroad.
Sombai is making a splash at a number of venues in Siem Reap, and the creators, Lionel Maitrepierre and Joelle Jean Louis, are already cooking up a storm in their kitchen to find new flavours.
Lionel is French and has a very decided penchant for flavoured rums, while Joelle comes from Mauritius, where the technique has a long-standing tradition. The duo arrived in Cambodia last year, to join with family and friends, and while pondering what to do next, Lionel, a former banker and Joelle, a teacher, hit on the idea of taking a rum-based technique they both enjoyed and applying it to Cambodia’s little loved rice wine to see what would happen.
“It completely changed our whole conception of what rice wine is,” enthused Joelle when describing the no doubt raucous experimental evenings spent with friends (if only I’d met them sooner,) while they found the right balances of fruits, spices and other flavourings.
“Our friends who tried it always told us, ‘This can’t be rice wine, it’s not possible.’ But it is!” she said.
The final range of eight flavours is now available at Sofitel, the Heritage Suites Hotel, Le Malraux restaurant and Asana bar, and the couple, who met in Singapore, is already finding that different nationalities are showing different preferences. “The French like the star anise and coffee flavour because it reminds them of pastis,” said Lionel, “Whereas Cambodians are much happier with flavours like tamarind and galangal.”
The flavoured rice wine is sold in bottles that are beautifully hand-painted with traditional Cambodian motifs which, aside from providing fuel for a fun night, also make for gorgeous souvenirs.
Being Irish, I had to try the green tea and orange-flavoured wine, and was genuinely surprised to find a rounded, smoky concoction with an high alcohol content that did not bamboozle my taste buds or my brain. Despite being Irish, I’m no fan of spirits and I’d never tried rice wine before. I can’t even bring myself to drink Jameson, so a poor, local brew doesn’t stand a chance. But the soft edges and easy drinking swiftly overcame my reservations.
“The fruits and the sugar cane even out the hardness of the alcohol and completely transform the flavour,” said Joelle, “So you can drink as much as you want.” Which might be a little optimistic at 30 per cent proof, but you can always try. And it’s not just for drinking neat either.
Joelle is a fan of mixing ginger and green chilli flavour with Sprite, while Lionel advocates mixing the lemon and lemongrass rice wine with Coke, to make a Kampuchea Libre.
Late night party fans might want to try mixing the ginger and green chilli with Red Bull Light (the normal flavour is too sweet) to keep their night swinging along. According to Lionel, one customer at Asana could hardly be torn away from his ginger and green chilli rice wine which he mixed with pineapple juice.
The possibilities are endless. And will be even more so in the future. “We’re experimenting with new flavours already,” said Joelle. “The green tea and orange is very popular, so we’d like to try one with black tea. And we’re looking at other spices and fruits like mint and pepper and, can you believe it, even durian.”
“That one’s going to be difficult for us”, said Lionel, “As we’re not big fans of that fruit. But it’s got to be tried”. Exactly right.