Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Romdeng and Friends

What may well be the best Khmer food served in Phnom Penh comes courtesy of an NGO devoted to bettering the lives of street children and their families. Mith Samian ("friends") has run a restaurant for called Friends for several years, right near the National Museum, staffed by street kids. Friends serves a mix of western and Asian cuisine, and the restaurant trains the youths for jobs in Cambodia's burgeoning tourism industry. The newer Romdeng (the Khmer word for the herb galangal) is devoted to fine Khmer cuisine, in an elegantly converted colonial home.

I was truly wowed by my dinner at Romdeng. I couldn't resist starting with the crispy fried tarantulas, which I've posted about previously.

But it was my main course that really bowled me over, a banana flower salad with Cambodian bacon. The pork was uncured and not very fatty, and the salad had a wonderfully complex yet subtle mix of herbal flavors, with just a hint of fruitiness.

I didn't need to eat more, but I had to try more, so I ordered the pork and taro spring rolls. These too were excellent, sort of a cross between a Vietnamese spring roll (cha gio, sometimes called imperial rolls) and a Chinese mashed taro cake.

I didn't need dessert, but that didn't stop me. I ordered the rice flour and turmeric crepes with caramelized bananas and coconut gelato. I was curious about the turmeric component, which seemed ultimately to give the crepes color but no real flavor. The warm crepes had a wonderfully chewy consistency, and the banana stuffing was delightful. The ice cream was the icing on the crepes.

The servers, mostly teens, were poised and professional, with excellent English skills. The pleasure of watching these wonderfully charming kids who've led such hard lives do an exemplary job only adds to the dining experience.

I was so impressed that the next day, my second and final day in Phnom Penh, I lunched at Friends before visiting the museum. The digs are humbler and the menu is more varied, including sandwiches and European dishes, but I stuck with the Cambodian flavors.

The young watermelon soup with prawns was fantastic, equal in quality to anything at Romdeng. The young melon itself had a flavor like okra, sans okra ickyness, the prawns were fresh and flavorful, and the broth had a bit of a hot spice kick and yet another great herbal marriage.

Not reaching the same heights but still memorable was the fish filet cooked in banana leaves with a Khmer spice paste. I don't know the totality of the spice mixture, but turmeric, lemongrass and galangal were certainly components.

A great meal and a chance to help out industrious street kids in a beautiful developing nation that has gone through horrors we privileged westerners can never truly fathom: what could be better than that?


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