After working abroad for several years, chef Sothea Seng returned to Cambodia in 2009 with a deep appreciation for Cambodian cooking and an eagerness to inject contemporary flair into Khmer traditional dishes.
“Personally, I still like my grandmother’s cooking best…the food I ate when I was a child,” he said. “I’m trying to give the authentic way a modern touch. But of course, the flavor and texture remain the same.”
One example is the pan-fried sea bass fillet he serves at his Siem Reap City restaurant, Mahob Khmer Cuisine, which he said attracts mainly young urban Cambodians and Westerners.
“Our traditional way is to fry the whole fish with the head and bones, and then stir-fry everything.” But Westerners have a hard time deboning a whole fish at the dinner table. “So I fillet the fish, make a nice portion and then marinate it the local way.”
Mr. Seng first pan fries the fish and puts it in a parchment paper parcel in the oven for a few minutes to finish cooking. In the meantime, he cooks down green onion, chili and green tomato to make a sauce, and whips together a mash of potatoes and Cambodian sweet potatoes.
The dish is served with the fish fillet—tender flesh under its crisp skin—resting on the whipped potatoes and surrounded by the colorful sauce.
“Most of our local cuisine, we serve with steamed rice,” Mr. Seng said. “But as I am trying to promote local cuisine to the world, sometimes we have to adapt.”
So in his cooking classes, he makes the recipe with potatoes because Westerners are comfortable with cooking them compared to cooking rice and it might encourage them to cook the dish at home. Substitution aside, he said, “the flavor and the texture of the dish are really authentic.”
In some cases, Mr. Seng will elevate an everyday dish by using a high-quality ingredient. For instance, instead of using cubes of beef as his grandmother did for stir-fried beef with red-ant sauce, he grills a good cut of beef and spoons over it a blanched red-ant veloute sauce. “It’s a completely new look but the flavor, of course, still is stir-fried beef with red-ant sauce,” the 31-year-old chef said.
Mr. Seng grew up in Kompong Cham province in a family of poor rice farmers. His grandmother was a great cook and he loved to watch her work. During the fishing season, his whole family would go to the Tonle Sap river.
“We caught fish, brought it back home and made prahok [fermented fish paste] for one year for the family and our relatives.”
In 1999, his family moved to Siem Reap City, where at 17, Mr. Seng got his first hotel job at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra. He later worked for major hotels in Siem Reap City, and then for a luxury hotel in Dubai and a resort in the Caribbean cooking Asian and Japanese cuisine.
He returned to Cambodia in 2009 and worked for hotels and restaurants until January 2014, when he opened his first restaurant in Siem Reap City, Hot Stone Cafe, which is geared toward local expats and Cambodians and serves barbecue and beer.
Last year, he opened Mahob Khmer Cuisine, for which he creates weekly specials using fresh local ingredients to complement the restaurant’s regular offerings, as well as Lava Restaurant, which serves Japanese and other Asian cuisine.
But he said Khmer cuisine was still closest to his heart.
Mr. Seng believes in coming up with new flavors in Cambodian cuisine while also keeping his recipes and techniques traditional.
For example, after finding honeycomb at the market one morning, he decided to season it with Kampot pepper and fresh herbs and wrap it in banana leaves to be oven baked.
“I love to create something new. I like to use our local ingredients,” he said. If Cambodian chefs do not continue to draw on their culinary heritage, he said, “we will lose our identity.”