Keepers of the Spice Trade: Ratanak Ros

Words by Priyanka Elhence

From its glory days along trade routes to pantry staples all over the world, spices have become so commonplace that we’ve taken them for granted. For these three trailblazers, however, spice is their livelihood and motivation.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice and Aromatics’ issue

Think of Cambodia, and chances are Angkor Wat will come to mind first before Khmer cuisine. Unlike its neighbours where Thai and Vietnamese cuisines need no introductions in any part of the world, the food of Cambodia are largely a mystery and missing from the international dining arena. Luckily Ratanak Ros, better known as chef Nak, is determined the change all that.

Ratanak Ros or chef Nak as she is better known (Image courtesy of Ratanak Ros)

Nak is Cambodia’s first female chef on a mission to preserve the ancient flavours of Khmer and showcase her native cuisine to the world at large. “Our people are modest about their food and shy about promoting our culinary arts to the world, so Cambodian food is largely unknown till now. But I believe that with the right exposure, Cambodian cuisine has the potential to be very well appreciated globally, and help restore the much needed and deserved sense of pride and delight in the Cambodian people through their national cuisine,” she says.

One of her methods is through Mahope, her luxury home dining restaurant and cooking school in Phnom Penh. Its name meaning ‘food’ in Khmer, but also ‘more hope’ in Nak’s interpretation, the restaurant and school aims to reopen by the end of the year after moving to a bigger location. The new wooden house environs will once again host one private dining group once a day, three days a week. While the cooking school can increase its intake to 60 pax, as the demand for corporate team building opportunities have also gathered much steam.

Duck Lemongrass Sour Soup with Palm Fruit (Image courtesy of Ratanak Ros)

“I initially started Mahope for foreigners to learn about Khmer cuisine, visit the market for an introduction to local ingredients and spices, and then put together a simple meal. But since it’s opening in 2018, we have now moved to a 60:40 ratio of foreigner to locals, with the local number increasing very fast as more and more people are taking pride in learning how to cook their local food in a more structured way,” Nak explains with a smile.

*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice and Aromatics’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter

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