Discover visits the charismatic Chef Ros Rotanak – Chef Nak, as she is known to her fans – at her home to feel the heart and soul of Cambodian cuisine
Words by Andrew Haffner, Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti
By this point, I’d seen it all before – the fish flapping desperately in their baskets, the women on low stools reaching without a flinch to grab them and chop their heads off on a scale-flecked wooden slab.
Right in the middle of this bloody scene, Chef Nak was beaming.
“My adventurous guests love this part,” she said, picking her way around a display of river fish.
For the morning, that included us. Chef Ros Rotanak – Nak for short – was hosting us for a market tour followed by a cooking lesson at her wooden house, an idyllic stilt home on the east side of the peninsula that juts into the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers. Though only about a 30-minute drive and a bridge away from the heart of Phnom Penh, it feels like a different world entirely – a greener, cooler world shaded by trees across a country road from the languid Mekong.
Though plenty of Cambodian people come here to eat, Rotanak’s tours and classes are primarily geared towards international guests curious about the intricacies of local cuisine.
She calls the home dining experience Mahope, the Khmer word for food. And, for her, the educational aspect is just as important as the sheer delight of eating.
That’s because the charismatic Chef Nak is in the midst of an outreach campaign to get Cambodian cuisine in front of as many people as possible. She’s leveraged her love of food to become a minor celebrity here in her home country, building a personal brand through experiences like Mahope, strategic partnerships with hotels and restaurants and an upbeat cooking channel on YouTube, simply titled Rotanak.
There’s a lot on her plate, but maybe Rotanak’s biggest food-promo achievement so far is the publication of her first cookbook, Nhum – Recipes from a Khmer Home Kitchen.
Nhum is a Khmer word that simply means “eat”, and the dishes are laid out step-by-step in the book to make that final goal as easy as possible. Rotanak gathered the recipes from the home cooking culture of the Kingdom, drawing deep from the well of her own childhood to produce a cookbook backed with personal stories and feeling, rich as a gently simmered stew.
Rotanak told us the glossy book, published in both English and Khmer, was a labour of love.
“It’s important to me that the world knows about Cambodian food,” she said, emphasising authenticity over everything. “The specialities here, for me, are the stories behind it all, the freshness of the flavours, and the way we balance them.”
The day’s cooking at Mahope was going to be a live demonstration of that.
By the time we met Rotanak in the morning at her local marketplace, she’d already been up for hours to make her first trip to the vendors at 5am to get a first crack at the freshest foods around.
“We go to the market twice a day because we don’t want to compromise for those ingredients,” she said. That daily haul is so important because it sets our menu, a taste of the seasonal, local and genuinely Khmer. Whatever is best – or perhaps most uncommon – in the market would determine what we’d be eating that day.
As we began the tour, it became immediately clear that Rotanak was in her element. She picked her way through the stalls, browsing at her leisure and pointing out the what’s-what of Cambodian fare, telling us the names of everything in English and Khmer.
I tried to be an attentive student. Around us, the market was serving up a big helping of sensory overload packed with foods alive, preserved and in every state between.
While I exclaimed over the goods, Rotanak was cutting right to business. She allowed a basket of white, nearly translucent river shrimp to catch her eye; she weighed an earthy taro root in her hand; she considered piles of purple and yellow flowers.
We took our fresh haul back to Mahope, where Rotanak told us the menu. We’d be having fish curry – “but not like any you’ve had before!” – and a few surprises based on what we’d just picked up at the market.
At best, I’m a dabbler in the kitchen, an enthusiastic amateur with a knack for boiling water. But with Rotanak’s coaching, we used a stone mortar and pestle to pound out fresh curry paste, a fragrant kitchen task that has gone unchanged across the passing centuries.
With the curry paste pounded, fried and mixed with sweet coconut cream, Rotanak showed us how to wrap marinated pieces of locally harvested snakehead fish in banana leaf for steaming, a traditional method beloved in both provincial village kitchens and Phnom Penh streets alike. Almost on a whim, she used an extra fillet to prepare a ceviche with fresh lime juice, a dish she served with a bright garnish of finely sliced lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf.
Though Rotanak had stressed to us earlier that, in her kitchen, flavour comes before fancy plating, the fish curry was still beautiful enough for me to pull out my smartphone to snap a quick picture to show off to friends. As we sipped a simple cocktail of locally distilled rum mixed with palm sugar and powdered anise, our plates had been ringed with neatly separate ingredients, a fragrant display that included shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts, a nest of rice noodles and two different kinds of colourful flowers. In the centre was our curry and, neatly wrapped like a present, our banana-leaf fish.
After nibbling at the outer ring, we mixed it all together and enjoyed the delicate balance of flavour, freshness and tradition that Rotanak had tried to tell us about earlier.
Of course, it was only upon eating that I fully got it. And by the time the final dish came out – a warm taro root and coconut cream pudding – we truly felt like we were home.
This story was originally published on Discover magazine 2020/21 vol.