A Champion of Cambodian Cuisine

Rotanak Ros, home cook turned ardent cultural ambassador, is on a mission to revive her country's ancient food traditions—before they're lost to history
October 24, 2019 Updated: October 24, 2019

NEW YORK—As Rotanak Ros stands over the stove, peering intently at the thin, dark amber sauce she’s rapidly stirring together in a skillet, an incredible aroma wafts into the air. 

Garlic and shallots, sautéed until browned and fragrant, form the backbone. To that, Ros has added brown sugar, caramelized to deepen its molasses-y sweetness; fish sauce, pungent and savory; and tamarind, a touch sweet but mostly mouth-puckeringly sour.

Together, Ros says as she offers me a spoonful to taste, they perfectly demonstrate the balance of contrasting flavors—sweet, savory, sour—that defines much of Khmer, or Cambodian cuisine—what I’ve come to her to learn about, and what she’s traveled to New York City, all the way from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to teach.

Ros—or Chef Nak, as she prefers to be called—is a self-taught home cook turned chef, entrepreneur, and ardent cultural ambassador. With her eponymous food business, Rotanak, she’s on a mission to revive traditional Khmer cuisine and bring it to the rest of the world.

“Cambodia has a very long, rich history,” Ros says. Its cuisine is one shaped over millennia of cultural influences—Indian, Chinese, Thai, French, Vietnamese—meeting the region’s abundance of fresh seafood, rice, and tropical produce. But it’s often overlooked, overshadowed by its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors (indeed, a common introduction to Cambodian food is “kind of like Thai, but not as sweet or spicy”—chilies are optional). Ros wants to change that.

Rosewood-Phnom-Penh
Rotanak Ros sets the table for a meal at Mahope, the home restaurant and cooking school she runs out of her home on the Mekong River. (Courtesy of Rosewood Phnom Penh)

In Phnom Penh, she’s doing that with Mahope, one of Rotanak’s initiatives, a Cambodian restaurant and cooking school she runs out of her wooden villa on the Mekong River. A few times a week, she hosts private five-course dinners and hands-on classes for tourists and locals alike, offering both a feast and an education in Khmer traditions.

In early August, her mission brings her to New York, on a brief U.S. tour to promote her latest and international endeavor: her first cookbook.

“Nhum: Recipes From a Cambodian Kitchen,” a collaboration with Phnom Penh-based photographer Nataly Lee, is a gorgeous collection of recipes pulled partly from Ros’s childhood and partly from her travels around Cambodia, documenting regional dishes from its varied provinces. It includes a lengthy glossary of Cambodian ingredients and their uses and health benefits—drawing upon the ancients’ knowledge of food as medicine—from lemongrass to Kampot pepper to the ubiquitous prahok, a funky fermented fish paste. It’s as much the work of an archivist as that of a cook.

In a borrowed Brooklyn kitchen, Ros is making me two recipes from the book. 

With Ros as a teacher, it’s hard to not be excited about the subject. She’s eager and effervescent, eyes sparkling behind her large, clear-rimmed glasses as she explains what she’s making.

The main course of our edible lesson is what she calls a “wrapping dish:” a whole fish whose flaky flesh is destined to be wrapped in leafy greens with plenty of fresh herbs and dipped in that potent tamarind sauce to eat. It inherently calls for an interactive communal feast—“a weekend delight!” Ros exclaims with a giggle.

At home in Cambodia, she would wrap the fish in banana leaves and grill it. But since we have neither banana leaves nor a grill, she improvises by baking the fish instead, lightly rubbed with fish sauce and scattered with fragrant slivers of lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, and galangal (a piney, citrusy ginger lookalike). “I’ve never done this before!” she says, with a bright smile and a shrug. (Spoiler: It’s a delicious success.)

When she’s not telling stories about the food, Ros hums as she works, and when she laughs, which is often, she throws her head back and lets out a long, bubbly guffaw, the pitch rapidly rising and falling like a bouncing spring. The sound—and her passion for Cambodian food—is contagious. 

Grilled fish with tamarind sauce.
Grilled fish with tamarind sauce. (Nataly Lee)

Healing Wounds

For all her joyful enthusiasm, though, Ros’s work can be terribly somber. It must confront a deep scar that mars recent Cambodian history: The cuisine she champions was nearly obliterated by the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime.

“Cambodians, we do not have the tradition of writing things down,” Ros says. Recipes and age-old culinary knowledge, as with other forms of Khmer cultural heritage, were primarily passed down orally. When the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, and in its four-year rule killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people—nearly a quarter of the population—both the people and their millennia-old culture suffered deeply. 

During the regime’s rule, and the years of war and unrest that lingered after, food became purely a matter of survival. What little documentation of Khmer foodways did exist was destroyed, and people subsisted on diets of watery rice porridge—or in many cases, in that time of induced widespread famine, starved to death. 

Ros grew up in the wake of the war; her parents were teenagers when the Khmer Rouge took power, and started a family shortly after it fell. As a passionate home cook, she felt a responsibility to do something to protect the cuisine of her motherland. 

Coconut Cream
Chek khtih, a dessert made with coconut cream, bananas, and tapioca. (Nataly Lee)

The 80 or so recipes in “Nhum” are part of Ros’s larger initiative to document the culinary traditions and knowledge that remain. In addition to drawing upon the dishes from her childhood, she’s traveled to rural villages across Cambodia, tasting surviving regional specialties and asking to speak to their secret keepers: the grandmothers and grandfathers of the pre-war generation, who lived through the genocide and still remember the foods of what Ros calls Cambodia’s “glory times.”

It’s not easy work. Decades later, the trauma of the Khmer Rouge-era persists; many of the older generation Cambodians she sought out were reluctant to speak on the topic.

Ros suspects that it’s partly a remnant of the survival-oriented mentality bred by the regime: “They learned to live very personally, and did not want others to know what’s going on with them—because they could be killed.”

When she sat down with her grandmother to ask about how she cooked before the war, she kept deflecting: “Oh, it’s very ordinary, it’s very simple, you don’t need to know about it,” Ros recalls.

And it wasn’t just her grandmother—“it was always like that, with everybody, when I went to meet them. They are not proud of what they know.” 

As Ros endeavors to spread Cambodian cuisine to the world, she knows there’s work to be done at home, too. “It’s not that we don’t have a good thing—it’s just the pride that is missing,” she says. 

That also applies to younger generations. Ros notes that as young Cambodians increasingly leave for big cities, and reach for the convenience of fast food over such traditional home-cooked dishes, these precious recipes and local cuisines, with no one to inherit them, are in danger of disappearing. 

“I would love Cambodians to feel that [Cambodian food] is a [thing of] pride; it’s not just a simple thing,” Ros says. 

“Food does not only fill us, but it also has been our medicine, it’s also a big part of our tradition and culture.” Letting Cambodia’s culinary heritage slip away, she says, would mean “losing a big, big part of us, of who we are.”

shrimp with kampot pepper
Shrimp stir-fried with Kampot province’s famous pepper. (Nataly Lee)

A Natural Fit

Ros’s passion for cooking began at a young age.

Growing up, she and her siblings often had to help their mother with her stall at the market, waking up at 2 a.m. to make the half-hour-long walk there. Ros credits this early exposure to such a large variety of ingredients and dishes for a talent that would prove useful in her culinary career: “Whatever [dish] I taste, if I’ve already been exposed to the ingredients, I know exactly what is in there and how to make it.”

It wasn’t an easy childhood. Her family didn’t have much money, and they lived in a home with a roof but no walls and ate the same simple meals every day.

In search of something different, Ros often wandered around their small village, poking her nose into her neighbors’ kitchens to see what they were cooking—and try to snag an invite to the dinner table for a freshly cooked meal. 

When she was older, she and her older sister took turns cooking for the family in the morning before school while their parents worked. She grew to love cooking, and experimenting with new ingredients and recipes. 

Many of Ros’s treasured childhood dishes now appear both in “Nhum” and on her dinner menus at Mahope: Crispy shrimp fritters, for instance, deep-fried clusters of tiny, gossamer-shelled shrimp that she bought from street vendors on her long walks home from school; or a recipe for village soup, a lemongrass-based broth she would simmer with a motley cast of other vegetables picked from her neighbors’ gardens, from young luffa to winter melon, before sharing the finished dish with the whole village.

teuk kreung
Teuk kreung, a fish and prahok-based sauce served with plenty of fresh, crunchy vegetables for dipping. (Nataly Lee)

The second part of the equation, the work of cultural preservation, came when Ros found Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an organization founded by a musician and genocide survivor to revive Cambodia’s endangered performing arts heritage. 

She joined CLA when she was 19, working a full-time job during the day to pay for her university classes in the evenings. Over the next eight years, she would climb up the ranks to become a manager—and would also meet the two people who would become her most ardent supporters: Sarin Chhuon, her husband, and Charley Todd, his adoptive father.

It was through her travels with CLA, seeking out surviving artists in Cambodia’s distant provinces and rural villages (sound familiar?), that Ros began to grow aware of the disappearing culinary heritage also scattered across the country.

As she worked to pull traditional Cambodian arts back from the brink of extinction, she got to thinking: “What about the culinary arts?”

She itched to do something about it, but financial logistics made her hesitant. It wasn’t until years later, in summer 2017, that Ros shared her dream with her family: “I want to do something with cooking Cambodian food,” she finally told them, “and I really want to start something someday.”

Both Chhuon and Todd responded: If she was going to start it someday anyway, why not start today?

Rosewood-Phnom-Penh
Rotanak Ros at the kitchen door of her wooden villa on the Mekong River, where she hosts private dinners and cooking classes on traditional Khmer cuisine. (Courtesy of Rosewood Phnom Penh)

Life’s Mission

Within a month, Ros made the jump. She dropped everything—a well-paid job, economic security, and, she admits, much of a work-life balance—to start her home restaurant. Chhuon took on three jobs to keep the family afloat, while Todd provided invaluable support, both business and moral.

When a visiting businessman from the UK, Joseph Tefler, saw her potential and offered to be her business partner, the two officially launched Rotanak. 

“We did not wait for anything at all,” Ros says. “We did not wait for money from anywhere, we did not [gather] good equipment or even a team. We started with whatever we could.”  

“It [was] a very silly decision to do this,” she admits, “but at the same time, I also wish that we started this two, three, four, five years ago.”

That sense of urgency stems from the nature of her undertaking: “To catch all of this old historical knowledge is fighting with time,” she says. After all, the keepers of that knowledge “are not getting any younger.”

The team is still small, but the business has since expanded from just Mahope, Ros’s home restaurant and cooking school, to include a website full of recipes, a YouTube channel for cooking videos, her first cookbook, and a global food consultancy service for high-end hotels and restaurants.

And there’s still plenty to come. Ros is already planning her second cookbook, for which she’ll travel to 25 provinces, speaking to more grandmothers and grandfathers, in search of the “forgotten flavors and forgotten dishes” of their childhoods. Also in the works is a 10-day culinary and cultural tour through Cambodia, jointly organized by Ros, Chhuon, and Todd. The first run, invite-only for now, is scheduled for January. 

It’s tiring work, Ros says, but looking at what she’s achieved in just two years helps her keep charging forward. Most heartening is the positive feedback she’s received from Cambodians—young and old, both in Cambodia and abroad. 

Bay kdaing pises
Bay kdaing pises, crispy rice chips with a shrimp and pork dip. (Nataly Lee)

She recalls a particularly special memory from the first dinner at Mahope she hosted for a group of Cambodians. They were friends who fled the war, had been living abroad for decades, and had returned to visit their homeland for a reunion. 

For one of the evening’s courses, Ros prepared bay kdaing pises, a snack of crispy rice chips with a pork, shrimp, and coconut dip. The crispy rice is made from the hard, brown layer formed on the sides and bottom of rice cooked in a metal or clay pot—the norm before rice cookers were introduced to Cambodia. That rice is scraped out, sun-dried, and deep-fried to a crisp.

One of the women looked up from her food and said, “Nak, this crispy rice reminds me of how my grandmother cooked when I was young, before the Pol Pot regime.”

“I got goosebumps!” Ros recalls with a laugh. “I still remember every single thing that night.”

It’s a good reminder of what she’s working for, why she took such a risk in the first place. Even when she works late into the night, the next day “I get up so energetically,” she says, “because I feel like I have a mission to continue.”

“I’ve never felt this way before. And I’m not done yet.”

Also see: Chef Nak’s Essential Cambodian Ingredients

RECIPE: Special Crispy Rice With Prawn and Pork (Bay Kdaing Pises)

RECIPE: Grilled Fish With Tamarind Sauce (Trei Dut Teuk Ampil Tum)

RECIPE: Coconut Cream Bananas and Tapioca (Chek Khtih)

You can learn more about Rotanak and order “Nhum: Recipes From a Cambodian Kitchen” ($29) at Rotanak.co

Nhum cookbook cover
“Nhum: Recipes From a Cambodian Kitchen” by Rotanak Ros and Nataly Lee ($29).
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