Best Vegan Food in Cambodia – a recipe from the chef!

Finding good vegan food while traveling in developing countries appears to be a bit easier than ever before! With growing interest in veganism, more restaurants are advertising vegan options to attract travelers. Although meat is often used sparingly in many Southeast Asian cuisine and vegetable dishes are abundant, there’s no guarantee that you can find vegan suitable meals when you step into a Cambodian restaurant. If you are a pure vegan, don’t forget fish sauce and shrimp paste are wildly used in many vegetable dishes in Southeast Asia.

During my last 3 days in Cambodia, I ate in 3 very different styles of vegan restaurants that were all fantastic. The first and most notable one was Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant in Siem Reap. The food, the setting and the hospitality were all fabulous. Since this is not a TripAdvisor review, I will only focus on the great food that I discovered. Once I learned that  the owner/chef, Nicolas, is French it became clear that French cooking techniques were infused into his dishes. The attention to detail that I love in French cuisine was on full display with the presentation of food as well. They claimed to use locally sourced fresh ingredients such as fresh coconut and I could truly taste the difference. The authenticity of the Khmer cooking with a French twist would be my best description of the food at Chamkar.  We had several dishes: Ratana’s spring rolls, Wedding day dip, Mad Eggplant Lovers (Grilled eggplant and loofah in coconut milk sauce and holy basil), Rediscovering Tofu (Stuffed tofu), and Chocolate cake with ice cream, drizzled with dark chocolate sauce. It’s impossible to pick one favorite dish but the one I would cook at home is the classic Cambodia dish, Mad Eggplant Lovers, which is so fitting for my daughter and me. Nicolas was kind enough to share his recipe (see below) with me when I asked so I hope you will enjoy it too. 

The second restaurant was Masala Dosa Street Kitchen, in Phnom Penh, serving a variety of nutritious dosa. Mmm….Indian street food in Cambodia, how odd, right? Surprisingly, this was a hit! The menu offers many international fusion flavors, such as Szechuan Dosa and Tom Yum Dosa. I chose to try the Eryngii mushroom & coconut cream dosa and it did not disappoint. Dosas are made with lentils & rice, naturally fermented, so no starch, no gluten, high protein and low fat. According to the owner, with roots in India, his mission is to create the healthiest food possible based on Ayurvedic principles. I highly recommend trying this restaurant for an extremely heathy and inexpensive meal.

Eryngii mushroom & coconut cream dosa

The third restaurant was Vibe Cafe, serving high caliber vegan food that you might find in California. It is definitely not a cultural experience but a welcome treat if you’ve been away from home for an extended period of time. For a brief moment, I forgot I was in Phnom Penh until I looked out the widow and saw the poverty on the back streets of the cafe. The food and drinks are all freshly crafted creatively and super yummy but be prepared to open your wallet just a tiny bit wilder. I had the Nourish Sandwich there because I was really missing some wholemeal bread after eating white rice and rice noodles daily for the past couple weeks. The sandwich had a beetroot hummus spread, filled with roasted pumpkin and almond feta, which created a tasty combination of flavors that made me wonder why anyone would need meat or cheese in their sandwich. If you want to try some of the recipes, you can find Vibe Cafe’s cookbook on Amazon.com.

Nourish Sandwich

I was truly inspired by the food I had in these 3 restaurants and can’t wait to expand my vegan cooking repertoire when I get home in a couple weeks.

Grilled Eggplant and loofah in coconut milk sauce and holy Basil

Ingredients for 1 serving

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1/8 Onion

1 tsp Chili paste

1 tsp Palm sugar 1

Salt to taste

1/2 Tbsp Soy sauce

100 ml Coconut milk

1 Eggplant

50 g Loofah (may substitute with zucchini)

1 handful Bean sprout

1 handful Holy Basil leaf

1 handful Long parsley

1 Tbsp Fried Shallot

1 Tbsp Toasted Coconut

Instructions

STEP 1

First toast the dried coconut in a pan on low heat. Stir it constantly in order to prevent burning. Stop fire when the color is getting golden brown.

STEP2

Put the eggplant on the grill ( BBQ or gas) for 5 min turn over after 2 min. Remove from fire when the skin is slightly burned. Cool down for a while.

Meanwhile prepare the other vegetables. Chop onion finely. Peel the loofah and cut in slice.

STEP 3

Heat vegetable oil in a pan then fry onion for 1 min. Add loofah, chilli paste, palm sugar and stir again, then add coconut milk and salt. Peel the eggplant and cut into bite size then add eggplant, bean sprout and stir 30 seconds (add little water if too thick). At the end, stir in Holy basil for few second 

Remove the pan from the heat, transfer to a plate and serve immediately topped with deep fried shallot, shredded long parsley and toasted coconut.


A Journey Back to Paradise

Few of us get to recreate a life changing travel journey! I feel so lucky to have done just that this past week in Thailand. The love of my life swept me away on a 4-month travel adventure in Southeast Asia 26 years ago which led us to marriage and 2 kids. On the eve of celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary, I boarded a plane and traveled 18 hours to meet our daughter in Bangkok to kick off our mother-daughter Southeast Asia adventure for a month, in celebration of her 22nd birthday. The first week of this journey is a replica of the itinerary her dad and I followed, but in a much less primitive way. Hard to believe anyone could ever travel with no cell phone, no public wifi, no GPS, and no Vloggers giving you advise on the do’s and don’ts on your anticipated destinations. We were just armed with our Lonely Planet guidebook for backpackers and a sense of wanderlust. We mapped out our route on public transportation and set out to find our way to the remote islands of Koh Tao and Ko Nang Yuan. Yes – we used a paper map!

After spending 3 days in Bangkok visiting the usual tourist attractions, my daughter and I took a cheap flight, on Air Asia for $56.77US, from Bangkok to Chumpon, a fishing village which is a jumping off point to Koh Tao. The train ride we took years ago is still a popular option for backpackers these days but it really doesn’t make sense to suffer an overnight train for 8-10 hours when you can fly there in 1.5 hour for a few dollars more. 

Transportation systems to these heavenly islands are more well-organized than ever before. We were able to purchase a shuttle ticket from a kiosk at the Chumpon airport and immediately jumped into a minivan scheduled to whist travelers to town. On my previous visit, finding transportation was difficult to say the least and usually at your own risk. Not able to speak Thai meant that we didn’t always know for sure if we were going to end up at our intended destination. The ride my husband and I took with the questionable “taxi” from the Chumpon train station to the pier, via a dirt road in the dark of night, still sends shivers up my spine when I think back. 

After spending an overnight in Chumpon, my daughter and I boarded an early morning ferry boat headed to Koh Tao. I was so excited about the little less than 3-hour ride with toilets onboard. So glad I didn’t have to ride a little wooden fishing boat, and I mean little, with Mr. Dang’s family to the island like my last visit here. I don’t remember how long it took but it felt like a lifetime as I was throwing up the entire time.

The tourist boom on Koh Tao slapped me in the face as soon as we stepped off the ferry boat. Drivers holding name signs of guests they were picking up, tour excursion offices and restaurants lined the street in front of the Maehaad ferry dock. For a moment, I thought we were on the wrong island. Tourist transport and accommodation options are endless these days, unlike our only option back then of staying at Mr. Dang’s cottages because we were able to catch a ride with him. 

My daughter and I stayed at the Sairee Beach Cottage which was reminiscent of the little tiny beach cottages owned and operated by Mr. Dang. There was also a restaurant on the beach but with one big difference – when they made a smoothie, the lights didn’t go dim like it did at Mr. Dang’s.

For better or worst, many things have changed on the islands with the passage of time. As expected, with the ease of access to the islands comes over development in hotels and resorts. There were only a few dive shops 26 years ago as compared to over 80 dive centers now. There are more spas offering cheap massages ($10 US/hour) than I can count on one hand. But the most shocking of all were the changes on the Koh Nang Yuan island, a piece of paradise I have kept in my memory bank as “heaven on earth” all these years. It still has powder white sand on a sand spit but I had to share this beach with many. The newly established fee of 100 baht (approximately $3 US) to enter the island has not deter boatloads of tourists making the very short trip from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan, nor has it helped to keep human trash from the ocean.  

With the popularity of these islands bring greater variety and higher quality of food, especially the western options that we might miss while traveling. The good cup of cafe latte that I was yearning for on my previous visit is now on every restaurant menu on the island.

The old adage of “take the bad with the good” rings true for me on this second trip to Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan. They may not be the purist island escape they once were but they will remain on the top of my travel list. In light of posting this blog on Thanksgiving, I want to express how thankful I am for the opportunity to revisit this paradise with my daughter and shared my passion for traveling with her.