Siem Reap’s most attention-grabbing Cambodian cuisine these days is surprisingly its most traditional, coming out of the very rustic upstairs kitchen of Pou Restaurant, which occupies an unrenovated wooden house on a dusty street opposite the historic Wat Damnak Pagoda. Pou translates as “uncle” in Cambodia, where it is customary to use the local equivalents of “father,” “brother,” or “sister” in restaurant names to create a sense of hospitality and familiarity, in the same way Cambodians call older women “aunty.” But while Pou has a casual feel underscored by mismatched secondhand furniture and hand-written blackboard menus, its name is an unlikely one for a restaurant helmed by a chef who, at 28, hardly seems old enough to be anyone’s uncle.
On my recent visit, Mork Mengly is wearing the brown T-shirt that serves as Pou’s staff uniform, barbecuing chicken over coals on the same sort of clay brazier his ancestors have used for 2000 years. He whooshes away a few flies lured in by the enticing aromas as he plates up on a hefty wooden table of the kind his father and uncles would drink beer around after a day in the rice fields.
The reason for Mengly’s rapid success is immediately obvious when you lay eyes on his vibrant plates with their grids and licks of color and abundance of edible flowers. But for all their visual appeal and creativity, what he is dishing up is very traditional. His take on a teuk kroeung, a rich, fishy, curry-like sauce made from red kroeung paste and mango, is more attractive than any I’ve seen whipped up by an aunty, with a small grilled fish served separately on the side, leaves and flowers arranged prettily around a mound of fermented rice noodles, and dots of chili oil adding a modern touch. But close my eyes and I’m tasting a classic teuk kroeung – the chef later divulges that he uses his grandmother’s recipe.
Best Time to Travel to Cambodia: Dry Season (November-April), ‘Wet’ Green Season (May-October). Siem Reap Geolocation: 11.46841° N, 104.88882° E.
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