Everyone’s invited: Breaking down barriers at Gulai Halal

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Sovannara insists that she carefully prepares the food according to the Halal standard. Yousos Apdoulrashim

As the name suggests, the Gulai Halal Restaurant in Phnom Penh caters to Muslim clientele with its range of Malaysian dishes. But unusually, the eatery’s owner Ath Sovannara also provides non-Halal dishes with the goal of breaking down religious barriers – as she has done in her own life and personal relationships.

Sovannara (pictured, Yousos Apdoulrashim) says the restaurant enables all Muslim and non-Muslim friends to enjoy food together with great care given to separate the ingredients and prepare them in distinct spaces.

“We serve various kinds of food because our clients are different nationalities. We wanted to bring together both Halal and non-Halal patrons here so we have to stick to the [Halal] rules. Here, we strictly separate preparation of food,” she tells The Post.

In 1999, the restaurateur moved from Battambang province to Phnom Penh to pursue her studies in hotel and hospitality management. She graduated in 2004 with substantial work experience in the hotel and hospitality industry from the part-time work that funded her studies.

Though raised Buddhist, Sovannara married her Muslim husband named Osman Omar in 2008, with the couple raising a daughter and son together. She says her decision to serve cross-cultural food was inspired by the dynamics of her marriage.

“I want to do something new on my own and I saw that Halal food is getting more and more popular in Cambodia. My husband is Muslim and so I started to focus a lot on Halal food,” the 40-year-old says.

“When my husband suggested that I run a restaurant serving authentic Malaysian food, at first I hesitated. I was unsure because I’m Khmer and not so well-educated about the rules and traditions of Islam. But with support from my husband, I decided to go for it.”

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The Gulai Halal Restaurant opened last year and serves a variety of dishes from Western, Indonesian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean, Japanese, Chinese and Cambodian cuisine, but with a strong focus on Halal food.

On the Halal menu, Sovannara says the most popular selection is Malaysia’s national dish Nasi Lemak, which consists of steamed rice, chicken drumsticks, eggs, peanuts, cucumber, dried anchovies and a spicy sauce.

With many food options, Sovannara insists that she carefully prepares the food according to the Halal standard.

“It’s 100 per cent pure Halal. Even the ingredients are imported from Malaysia and Singapore to ensure that my Muslim clients can enjoy the food without any doubt.

“It is the way to build a reputation and trust. If they are not confident about our food, Muslim clients will not dig a spoon in the food. I have to focus on the quality and image, even the staff are dressed according to the religion. I make sure that different dishes are cooked separately.”

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Other recommended dishes include kampung fried rice, roti canai, roti telur, roti sardin, satay and fried mee Malay style.

Generally, prices for food range between $1 and $6, while drinks are $1.50 to $4.

“For Khmer people, they also like to come for Malaysian food too. Our chef reduces the amount of coconut milk and some of the strong spices while cooking so that they can still enjoy the food,” Sovannara says.

Gulai Halal Restaurant serves between 50-60 patrons per day and Sovannara already has plans to expand to Cambodia’s most popular tourism hub Siem Reap.

“Now I’m preparing to expand the menu and will open another restaurant in Siem Reap because there are many tourists there. I also plan to open a Halal food store that has the same standard to those in foreign countries. I’m not quite sure if Cambodia has this kind of food store yet,” she says.

Sovannara is also currently receiving orders to prepare Islamic evening meals during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began on May 5 and is set to run until June 4.

Gulai Halal Restaurant is located on Daun Penh district’s Street 144. They can be found on Facebook (@GulaiRestaurantCambodiaHalal).

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