Sihanoukville – “Jattebra.” This was Swedish tourist Leif Peterson’s verdict on the Swedish meatballs served, on a Friday evening earlier this month, at The Small Hotel’s restaurant.
His verdict—Swedish for excellent—was understood, and confirmed, by the other customers, since most people who dine at the restaurant are Swedish. So is the owner, 41-year-old Henrik Olsson.
Sihanoukville has become a destination for Scandinavian package travel, and many visitors from Sweden drop by on that account. In the last year, this has tripled the number of customers at The Small Hotel, Olsson said.
“If they know there is a fellow countryman here, they will come,” he said.
But the reason why Swedes, Scandinavians and, for that matter, fans of solid, well-cooked cuisine should come to this little establishment hidden behind the Caltex gas station in central Sihanoukville goes beyond that.
It also goes beyond the very good Norwegian cured salmon with dill, the Swedish meatballs or the Swedish “pyt i panna,” however jattebra they may be.
The main attraction is that dining at The Small Hotel—with its blue tablecloths, Swedish flags and relaxed homey atmosphere—is an all-round pleasant experience. The waitresses chat with everyone, English and Swedish-language newspapers are on hand and the tables are arranged in such a way that it is easy to strike up a conversation with other guests.
On that Friday evening, two Swedish couples were there to try the specialties on the menu.
Aake Sjoberg, a Swede in his 50s from the city of Sunsvall in northern Sweden, was traveling in Asia for three weeks with his wife. He decided to try the pyt i panna—squares of meat and potatoes toppled with an egg. He looked quite skeptical when it arrived, but he said, “it does look like back home-it looks right.”
The Cambodian waitress bringing his food was 20-year-old Daly Ponh, who started working at the hotel three months ago, when Olsson realized he needed to expand his staff from 11 to 12. Since then, she has been making an effort to learn Olsson’s native tongue by talking to the guests. “They call me the parrot, because I repeat everything, so I can remember it,” she said.
Olsson, who first came to Cambodia in 2000 and had been traveling in Asia since the late 1980s, said he does not aim at exactly duplicating the Nordic taste. Neither has he made a deliberate effort to attract Swedish customers. But word gets around, he said.
“Every now and then, I have Swedish backpackers coming here because they heard [about] the Scandinavian food. They might be on a budget of $5 a day, so they have to share one portion of Swedish meatballs,” which costs $4.50, Olsson said. “They get very exited and, to them, the food is like back home,” he said, adding that Swedish tourists often go for his Khmer selection, especially the fish amok.
For Sjoberg, the novelty of enjoying well-known courses in tropical surroundings far surpassed the urge to try something new, he said.
He was quite pleased with his pyt i panna. “The taste is a little wrong because it is not the same spices. And the sauce is a different texture…but it is good, no doubt about that,” he said after finishing his meal and pushing the empty plate towards the middle of the table.
There is also a small Swedish shop in Sihanoukville selling imported Swedish food, and that is where Sjoberg and his fellow tourists were headed before bed, he said.
The four agreed that The Small Hotel was definitely worth the visit. In fact, they said, it was jattebra.