At Café Dei, meats are served steamed, grilled and deep-fried, bringing an experimental twist

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A chef prepares glazed stuffed chicken in a clay-pot oven. Eliah Lillis

Sarath Sokchan, the chef of Tuol Kork’s Café Dei, takes a mentality of constant experimentation and innovation into the kitchen.

His research and years of culinary experience have resulted in a repertoire of well-known specialties, which typically involve unusual cooking methods, such as the use of bamboo tubes and clay-pot ovens.

Sokchan started his career working as an assistant in a kitchen in a small restaurant in Phnom Penh when he was just 12 years old. Within three years, he was promoted to chef. Longing to learn more about cooking, he moved to work in a restaurant in Thailand, where his knowledge of regional cuisines expanded.

“I learned that Southeast Asian cuisines, especially Cambodian and Thailand, have many unique ways of cooking,” Sokchan says. “[These methods] provide a unique flavour, but are mostly only practiced by some households in the countryside and in the mountains [in Cambodia and Thailand].”

When Café Dei was opened in December last year, Sokchan introduced his uncommon cooking styles to the restaurant. His processes mainly focus on putting seasoned meats, including fish, beef, and chicken, in a bamboo tube instead of aluminum foil, and then grilling it.

“I find that bamboo could not only give a special sweetness and aroma to the food but also be an attractive way to decorate the dishes,” he says. “I have been testing this method with different meats and ingredients, which result in surprisingly pleasant tastes.”

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The snakehead fish cooked inside bamboo. Eliah Lillis

Sokchan also smokes seasoned meats inside a clay jar, which, according to Sokchan, can cook the meat “from the inside”, adding tenderness and preserving the flavour.

The most popular dishes at Café Dei are the Grilled Fish in Bamboo Tube ($7.5), which consists of a snakehead fish grilled for 20 minutes in the tube and served with tangerine sauce, num banh chok (Khmer noodles) and spinach, tomato, bean sprout, and cucumber. The proper way to handle it is by putting a bit of everything on one of the spinach leaves, then dipping it in the tangerine sauce.

Customers also turn to the popular Chicken Smoked in a Clay Jar ($15), seasoned with a special-made gravy and served with steamed rice, and Moan Lak Kloun ($20), a deep-fried whole chicken wrapped in sticky rice, both of which are enough for three people.

Besides the food, Café Dei provides a spacious and art-filled environment. Its three storeys are covered with modern and contemporary paintings and photographs. The idea for the decoration comes from Ean Dollar, one of the four owners of Café Dei, and an enthusiastic art collector.

“Sokchan’s skill and talent are extraordinary, but we do not want our restaurant to be well-known only for its food,” Dollar says. “We want the customers to feel that they are eating in an art exhibition hall, where they could enjoy the delicious tastes and the beauty of art.”

Café Dei Restaurant is located in Tuol Kork on #20 Street 590, Phnom Penh. It is open every day from 6am-11pm. Tel: 015 859 959.