Saoy: Chef Nak highlighting the pure essence of Khmer cuisine
Chef Nak’s journey to create Saoy – Royal Cambodian Home Cuisine was a four-year labour of love that resulted in a stunning cookbook that showcases the beauty and richness of Cambodian cuisine.
The cookbook is a tribute to the late Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana and her collection of recipes that were initially documented in the 1950s.
“Saoy means ‘to eat in a royal setting’, and covers a number of dishes that were consumed at the royal court. They were researched and recorded by Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana of Cambodia in the 1950s and 1960s,” said celebrity chef Rotanak Ros, known as “Chef Nak”.
“My focus is on showcasing images, designs, and recipes that truly represent the essence of Khmer cuisine,” she added, during the launch of the work, her second recipe book, at the Rosewood hotel in Phnom Penh on May 12.
To bring the cookbook to life, she collaborated with digital artist Serey Sot – known as “Soben” – and award-winning Cambodian photographer Lamo.
The team worked tirelessly for four years to reinterpret and reinvigorate the recipes with visually arresting images that transport readers to the royal dinner table.
“I was so lucky to have the opportunity to work with Soben and Lamo – two incredibly talented Khmer artists who have truly elevated the cookbook’s stories, ingredients and recipes through their beautiful art,” she said.
Chef Nak also thanked Rosewood Phnom Penh for giving them a platform and helping them celebrate Khmer culture.
Soben’s pieces showcase the royal family’s unique ingredients, table settings, and dining customs, drawing inspiration from Cambodian folklore and traditional art, and artfully depicting each ingredient with a layered use of colour and sophisticated shading.
“I take great pride in my work for Saoy. It offered an extraordinary opportunity to showcase my country’s authentic cuisine through artistic expression,” said Soben.
“I am grateful to Chef Nak and her team for their tireless support of Khmer traditions and for giving me complete artistic freedom,” he added.
Lamo’s photography depicts the finished dishes, set against warm woods, silks and intricately gold-trimmed lacquerware.
In one image, shrimp paste dip with crispy rice sits invitingly against a black and gold backdrop. In another, “golden-stuffed chicken” takes centre stage, surrounded by local ingredients served in gleaming tableware.
The cookbook is not just a collection of recipes, but also a reflection of Cambodian culture and tradition. Chef Nak’s vision was to make the recipes accessible to home cooks while still retaining their authenticity and regal roots.
One of the recipes that Chef Nak highlights is a banana trunk soup and fish cake, which she describes as easy to cook at home. She notes that the key difference between cooking in the palace and at home is the luxury of garnishment and ingredients, but the recipes themselves are the same.
Chef Nak said Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana devoted herself to teaching girls at Sothearos School about home housekeeping.
“We do not realise it, but the royal palace featured Khmer, French, Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines,” she added.
“The more we research, the more we understand that the royal palace was a place of art and a place to welcome many national and international guests,” she continued.
Therefore, whenever the Princess entertained foreign guests, she would prepare a similar meal for them to enjoy.
These multi-ethnic dishes are also featured in Chef Nak’s book.
“I love and respect the late princess because of her attention to detail. I tried to learn from her. Apparently, she cooked rice with milk and butter. We have all these combinations locally, but the way she did it was both unusual and fantastic,” she told The Post.
Chheang Sreynich is a food enthusiast who is passionate about exploring the traditional cuisines of Cambodia. She recently purchased the royal cookbook from Chef Nak, and was delighted with her purchase.
Sreynich said that she was particularly impressed with the design and photography of the cookbook. She loved each one of the recipes in the work.
“I am excited to use the cookbook to prepare some of the dishes and to learn more about the rich culinary heritage of Cambodia,” she added.
“I also want to preserve it as a historical document. I believe this cookbook is an invaluable resource that provides a glimpse into the culinary traditions of Cambodia’s royal family,” she said.
According to Chef Nak, the Royal Palace recipes have undergone a few changes to make them more accessible to everyone.
Chef Nak, who often conducts research on Khmer food in remote villages, said that the cookbook consists of 60 main dishes, such as Khmer noodles, each of which is broken down into smaller variations.
“The cookbook’s creation was a laborious process that took four years of research and collaboration with a team of graphic designers and photographers,” she added.
“By purchasing this cookbook, you will gain a deeper understanding of Khmer cuisine. Our research delves beyond just the ingredients, as we provide detailed information on each one including their name, place of origin, and health benefits,” she continued.
The cookbook will be exhibited at Rosewood until June 6, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of Cambodian cuisine and culture.
“Whether empowering rural Khmer women or sharing local dishes with her global following on social media, Chef Nak is one of the most passionate advocates and ambassadors of Cambodian food culture,” said Daniel Simon, managing director of the Rosewood, and confirmed fan of the celebrity chef.
“Her passion for preserving the heritage and flavours of her homeland shine through in every page of Saoy – Royal Cambodian Home Cuisine,” he added.
The Khmer version of the book is priced at $39, while the English addition is available for $45.