He may not be as well known as Ken Hom or Rick Stein, but Luu Meng has been making a name for himself in Khmer cuisine over the past two decades. This culminated in him appearing with Gordon Ramsay on a forthcoming episode of Gordon’s Great Escape and he’s also juggled woks with Anthony Bourdaine during his visit to Cambodia.
Luu Meng runs several renowned restaurants in the Cambodian capital and these are well worth seeking out during a visit to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the most famous is Malis (meaning Jasmine). The first designer restaurant to open in the capital, Malis specialises in authentic Khmer cuisine. Aromatic and lightly scented, the dishes are beautifully presented and include such favourites as beef cooked in bamboo and a baked fish curry in banana leaf, the national dish known as amok. The garden setting is delightful and the property includes air-conditioned dining rooms if the temperature is soaring.
He is also a partner in one of the leading French restaurants in the city, Topaz. Also located on Norodom Blvd, south of the Independence Monument, this is another stylish spot for a dinner with a Gallic accent. Imported snails and foie gras are on the menu, plus some excellent cuts of steak. As well as a popular place to dine, upstairs is Studio 182, one of the leading bar-nightclubs in town with regular jazz and events.
Other eateries include the new Yi-Sang, stunningly located on the banks of the Mekong next to the Chaktomuk Theatre, and Cafe Sentiment, a chain of popular cafes. Yi-Sang is a great place to while away an evening by the river, soaking up the breeze. As well as riverside dining, there is also a rooftop terrace. The menu is eclectic and includes Khmer set lunches or dinners, authentic Chinese cuisine and a good selection of international favourites.
Hanuman has been fortunate to work closely with Luu Meng on several film projects over the years, including the Gordon Ramsay and Samantha Brown television shoots last year. Thanks to our close relationship, Luu Meng has kindly made himself available for culinary masterclasses for those with a professional interest in Cambodian cuisine. Although more expensive than the standard cooking classes we offer in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, this is a unique opportunity to learn the secrets of Khmer cuisine from the leading expert.
Even if you don’t find time for a masterclass, we strongly recommend you seek out one of his restaurants during your stay in Phnom Penh. Malis comes highly recommended for the authentic flavours and superb presentation, but the new Yi-Sang has location, location, location.
Luu Meng is also featured in the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide on Page 61 of the Food & Drink chapter. Here is an excerpt:
“We discuss Cambodian cuisine and what differentiates it from its neighbours. ‘Thai food is hot, spicy and sweet, while Vietnamese is more Chinese influenced,’ explains Meng. ‘Khmer cuisine is all about fresh spices. There are influences from India, but always with fresh ingredients, not powders. Our cuisine is not as spicy as Thai and we don’t use as much fish sauce as Vietnam, although we do love prahoc [fish paste].’ He pauses to reflect, ‘It’s all about freshness.’
On the subject of Cambodian tastes and a Cambodian national dish, he is animated, and naturally amoc (mild baked fish curry) leads the discussions. ‘Amoc is typically Cambodian and takes advantage of our abundance of fresh fish from the Tonle\’ Sap,’ Meng points out. ‘Cambodian cuisine also has some superb salads, which often surprises people. Sait ko plear [raw beef salad] can be prepared carpaccio style with fresh, finely grated lemon grass and is a symphony of subtle flavours.’
Travelling widely and cooking for a diverse audience, Meng has taken on many influences, but is quite a traditionalist at heart. ‘For me, the most important thing about cooking is quality. Quality of the ingredients, quality of the kitchen, quality of the service,’ he continues. ‘If a chef knows and understands this, it can be applied to different cuisines.’ However, he prefers to concentrate on his strengths and promote local ingredients and traditional dishes. ‘If we plan to promote another cuisine, then we bring in a specialist chef from that culinary culture,’ he explains. ‘That way, we always guarantee the authentic flavour.’
Naturally, we end up discussing the best restaurants in Phnom Penh for traditional Cambodian food. ‘For me, you have to go over the bridge [Chruoy Changvar Bridge] for the real taste of Cambodia,’ he enthuses. ‘Many of the places in town serve a bit of everything from the region, but over the bridge are the real Cambodian restaurants.’ A favourite? He laughs. ‘It has to be Rom Chong, as they offer very traditional recipes and a peaceful setting.’”