Khmer fare in Phnom Penh
No. 172, Street 13, Sangkat Chey Chomneah,
Khan Daun Penh,
Tel 012 60 71 73
Whilst there is plenty of street food in Phnom Penh actual restaurants serving Khmer dishes seem to be few and far between.
Shanak’s is in the tourist belt not far from the Grand Palace. From the outside, it is unassuming and blends with the rest of the street. The inside is clean and bright. White walls above the table height, burgundy below to match the table linen. Large mirrors help reflect the light and give the illusion of space. In reality, there is probably only space for about thirty guests at a time. Between the mirrors, there are vertical wood carvings of mythical figures with a smaller horizontal row above the bar. Background music is modern pop but not so loud as to be distracting. The staff are friendly, speak English and are well informed about the dishes.
The menu is quite extensive and, unsurprisingly, there are a few dishes that are shared with neighbouring countries. The Khmer Empire did, after all, occupy most of them at its height. There is a lab, beef with roasted rice powder, lemongrass, shallots, lime and chilli, popular in Laos. Tom Yum soup, a must-have on every Thai menu, is served here with mixed seafood. Those delicious cold spring rolls that immediately come to mind when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine are also available here.
For starters, I opted for a mango salad. This is a cousin of the infamous Thai som tam but the ingredients are tossed together rather than pounded. The mango is shredded and mixed with smoked fish, carrot, mint, coriander, peanuts and dried shrimp. Chilli can be added according to taste. The staff will probably ask when you order how spicy you would like it. But since the chillies are chopped rather than pounded, if you decide you have overdone it, they can easily be pushed to one side. I’m quite fond of chillies normally but this dish is crunchy and fresh, with delightful summery flavours and doesn’t really need them.
To follow I went with a prahok k’tis (main picture). This is a classic Khmer dish. The prahok is a fermented fish paste usually made from the channa genus or mudfish, no doubt netted in the Mekong or Tonle Sap rivers. It is used as a seasoning in many Cambodian dishes. Here it is mixed into a dip with minced pork, lemongrass, pea eggplant, peanuts and garlic.
It is served with a colourful selection of vegetables and flowers, most striking the lilac-coloured blooms of the water hyacinth and the yellow sesbania javanica flowers which don’t appear to have a common name but are a member of the pea family. Both of them seem to offer more in terms of colour than they do in flavour but they are not unpleasant. The stems of the hyacinth and the water lily are hollow and impart more of that lovely summery flavour which is a very agreeable counterpoint to the strong flavour of the prahok.
Bringing up the rear are lettuce, cucumber and aubergine which seem quite ordinary in comparison. The dish is served with steamed rice but it is normal to simply dunk your foliage into the prahok.
There is not much on the menu for dessert. They do have a good selection of ice cream, there is fruit, chocolate fondant and eggy bread. I went for the latter which is just a cute way of saying French toast.
There is also quite an extensive drinks list but I limited myself to a banana shake.