Delighting the palate and satisfying the appetite, traditional Khmer cakes such as num ansorm, num korm, and num bort, all traditionally wrapped in banana leaves, hold a special place in Cambodia’s culinary landscape.
Deeply embedded within the national identity, these cakes not only represent generations of family businesses but are also increasingly finding their place on the platters of hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh.
Inn Chantheara, a dynamic entrepreneur, has transformed the art of making these traditional cakes into a thriving business. The 41-year-old owns a flourishing Khmer cake enterprise “Neal” nestled in the locale of Borey Mongkul Phnom Penh II, in Tuol Sangke II commune of in Russey Keo district.
Chantheara’s journey into the cake business was not a straightforward one, with several entrepreneurial experiments leading him to finally focus on something within his sphere of expertise.
“Conventional hand-held Cambodian cakes carry enormous significance for our nation,” says Chantheara, highlighting the lack of awareness about these traditional delights among foreign tourists.
He believes the issue lies in the limited knowledge of where to buy these authentic Cambodian treats. Chantheara’s vision goes beyond merely selling cakes.
“I aspire to uplift the image of traditional Cambodian cakes, to have them recognised not as mere cakes, but as premium products that are clean, healthy, and adhere to both national and international standards,” he states.
Further, Chantheara imagines his traditional cakes occupying prime positions in various settings, from local noodle shops to modern stores, where they can be showcased alongside other goods.
The cakes, he believes, should be seen as tangible representations of Cambodia’s rich culinary heritage, inviting visitors to explore and appreciate the ancient art of Khmer cake making.
Chantheara started making cakes in 2016 and like many businesses, his venture took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the economy now showing signs of recovery, he currently offers a diverse range of 32 types of cakes to his clientele. Yet, the full capacity of his enterprise extends up to a staggering 64 different varieties of cakes, leaving plenty of scope for the appetites and curiosities of both locals and tourists alike.
Chantheara’s cakes are currently finding their home in numerous hotels and restaurants. His menu boasts of over ten popular varieties, including ansorm chrouk, ansorm chek, num bort, num katam, ansorm khnor, chak kachan, treap, pumpkin pie, and num korm. These cakes, perfect for any occasion, have also found a regular customer base, who demand over 30 types of his expertly crafted cakes.
Despite the staff shrinking from 40 employees to just four due to the Covid-19 impact, Chantheara’s operation remains robust.
His enterprise draws upon the local community, sourcing banana leaves from women in 50 to 60 families in the Chamkar Leu district in Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces. Each month, over two tonnes of banana leaves are used to wrap the cakes in a nod to the traditional methods.
His quest to share traditional Cambodian cakes with a wider audience has seen Chantheara expanding to online sales. Offering direct delivery to customers and engaging with buyers on social media, he has been successful in maintaining a foothold in the Phnom Penh market. His sights are now set on expanding into other areas of the nation.
Chum Vuthy, director of the Phnom Penh Department of Culture and Fine Arts, sheds light on the significance of these cakes.
As he told The Post, num ansorm, num korm, and other wrapped cakes are time-honoured recipes passed down from generation to generation. These cakes often grace the tables at various events such as prayer ceremonies and weddings. In the past, during Khmer New Year celebrations, a giant num ansorm was a common sight.
He added: “Whilst similar cakes can be found in neighbouring countries, our traditional Cambodian cakes serve as a proud display of our national identity for guests visiting our country”.
Indeed, every bite of these cakes is a taste of the rich, cultural heritage of Cambodia.