The herbs are all on one level and the vegetables on another,” says chef Luu Meng. “This herb is sa om, and it smells like asparagus.” He thrusts the pungent leaves under my nose. “And our basil is really lemony. European chefs don’t understand how acidic Cambodian herbs are; it’s better to use them whole or sliced rather than blended.”
Inside Phnom Penh’s dimly lit Phsar Boeung Keng Kang market, the aisles have become torrents of shoppers. I struggle to stay afloat and keep Luu in view, distracted by the stalls around me, each one an explosion of colour and organised with military precision. The chef swerves towards a fish stall and I almost lose him. “It’s rare to find tonguefish in the market, so if I see it, I buy it all,” he says.
Chef Luu Meng is a man on a mission. ‘Cambodia’s Gordon Ramsay’ — as one local told me wryly — is committed to putting Cambodia’s cuisine back on the world stage after spending years in Thailand and Vietnam’s gastronomic shadow. His story is inspirational: after his family fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Cooking is in his blood — his grandma was a chef at the Royal Palace, his mum had a noodle stall on the streets of Phnom Penh.