It is true that the modern concept of gender equality no longer binds Cambodian women to kitchen. Ros Rotanak, better known as Chef Nak, sees cooking as her passion in life. For the Khmer cuisine enthusiast and entrepreneur, cookery is not only about feeding the hungry but also an important national identity that needs preservation. Som Kanika talks to Chef Nak talk about her hobby horse and her new cookbook featuring traditional Khmer dishes.
Cambodia’s culinary odyssey is one among the distinctive cuisines in Southeast Asia. However, after ‘Year Zero’ and without a proper record, the local cuisines and authentic recipes are on the verge of fading from memory.
Ros Rotanak, or Chef Nak as she prefers to be called, started her culinary career as an entirely self-taught cook for her family, with a bigger dream: to be the defender of her motherland’s cuisine.
With Mahope, her restaurant and cooking school, Chef Nak is committed to bringing Khmer dishes worldwide through teaching, television and social media.
She is now accelerating her mission to rediscover Cambodia’s forgotten cuisine by presenting Cambodia’s recipes to the world through her first cookbook Nhum in both English and Khmer language.
“Looking back to our past, we don’t see many Khmer food recipes been written down as Khmer Food archives. This made me think that I should do something,” Chef Nak says.
Nhum is Chef Nak’s first recipe book which portrays hundreds of authentic and native Cambodian ingredients and spices in a delicious variety of home-made dishes. Displaying more than 75 recipes over 200 pages, readers will be able to go on a culinary and taste adventure around Cambodia’s varied food scene whilst also understanding the story behind each unique dish and at the same time, learn how to create the unique flavours of our rich culture.”
Chef Nak adds that recording and archiving the beautiful Khmer cuisine before it disappears, is aimed at young Cambodian people. She wants them to know what has happened with the dishes, culinary culture, and stories across the timeline of different generations.
To be able to publish Nhum, Chef Nak claims, was not a walk in the park.
“Creating this book was such a risk for me since I have no sponsor and nothing at all in my hands,” she says.
“Plus, to work on this project, I had to resign from my full-time job and devote all my energy to the dream. As I was a co-breadwinner in the family, I was quite worried about that.”
Chef Nak leaves Phnom Penh whenever she can for the rustic provinces in the country. In those places, she goes to people’s homes and requests to speak with the oldest person in the family to learn about the dishes enjoyed by Cambodian people before the Khmer Rouge came to rule in 1975 and ruined all aspects of life in the next four years; especially food.
While scouring the countryside for traditional recipes and discovering more of our local forgotten Khmer cousins, Chef Nak has also received negative opinions — that what she is doing makes no difference for society.
Despite all the challenges, Chef Nak never gave up, thanks to encouragement from her friends and family, especially her husband.
“My husband has been a great source of motivation who always pushes and stands behind me in tougher times I bumped into. He said that since it was my dream and that “if you will do it one day, why don’t you start doing it now.”
Meanwhile, Chef Nak also believes in the “beauty in simplicity” which most people take for granted, which had led to the losses of some cultural identities. For her, everything has its beauty, value and meaning.
“Generally, we do not notice this small dish when we have an abnormally high body temperature, shivering or headache, our parents often make bitter melon soup or Teouk Krueng (Khmer food with many vegetables) to make our fever subside without taking a single pill,” Chef Nak says.
“It’s really hard and takes a lot of processes to compose a cookbook like this one. I have to be very informative and detailed with every story and the specific ingredients that make the food special and attractive.”
In the meantime, Chef Nak’s ardent wish is to see more Cambodians of the young generation giving more support and accord more value to our own local food.
“I sincerely hope that after decades have passed by, there will come a time when the younger generations want to know what people eat in my generation as well as do research on our daily eating routine.”