Vegetarian restaurant draws in the crowds

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Meat substitute is moulded into a fish shape to create one of JC Vegetarian’s most popular offerings. Hong Menea

Sweet and sour fish on a vegetarian menu might sound weird, but patrons at Riverside’s JC Vegetarian Restaurant can rest easy because no fish was harmed in the preparation of this tasty meat-substitute dish.

Located just three blocks from Tonle Sap promenade, the restaurant boasts a menu of delicious plant-based dishes inspired by cuisines from around the world.

Offerings include taro-roasted pork cake, Italian pizza, Xinzhou fried noodles, Malaysian fried rice and salted egg with mushrooms.

The selection has attracted a mostly international clientele thanks to JC’s owner, Chea Sovannary.

The 36-year-old Sovannary, whose anglicised name is Jessy Liv, or Jessy for short, worked as a tour guide for more than 20 years and made a network of acquaintances, some of whom have turned up at her restaurant.

She planned the restaurant with four friends, and they officially opened its doors on June 28.

“Since I used to be a tour operator before I opened this restaurant, I had many customers in hand. I know people from different countries, mostly from Malaysia, Singapore and China,” Jessy says.

Most of her customers are from those countries or elsewhere in Asia, while she estimates locals make up 20 to 30 per cent of her business.

The restaurant’s name, JC, comes from the sound for the Chinese characters for “binding fate” or “fated to be friends.” It signifies her friendship with her co-founders and sounds similar to her nickname – Jessy.

The restaurant should have opened after Chinese New Year in January, but the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to be postponed.

It was during this time that Jessy realised her new restaurant should be a vegetarian venture.

“The pandemic made people worried and some feared consuming meat, which they believe causes the virus to spread even more.

“I myself am not a vegetarian, but I eat less meat. So, I think I will take advantage of this by opening a healthy restaurant for people where they can feel safe to enjoy their food,” Jessy says.

The restaurant is technically vegetarian but Jessy clarifies that her kitchen can adapt to stricter vegan practices if customers request it.

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Chea Sovannary chose a vegetarian menu to ease people’s fears of consuming animal meat. Hong Menea

“We cannot call ourselves a real vegan [restaurant] because real vegans are stricter than us. They will not eat eggs or any kind of onions. But here we eat everything except meat.

“That is why we often ask our customers if they are strict vegans. If they confirm this, we will adjust our food according to their palates,” she says.

Unlike other vegetarian restaurants that target adults who avoid eating meat for religious reasons or to help fight climate change, JC encourages kids to join in on the plant-based lifestyle.

“As for the children, sometimes they aren’t into vegetables like adults, so we also have pizza and burgers without meat for them. And they love it,” she says.

The restaurant offers food a la carte from a menu or a $5 buffet which offers at least seven different options, including a soup.

“Every week we usually have a schedule for the food in our buffet station, and we add at least two or three new dishes for customers to enjoy,” Jessy says.

All of the ingredients, she says, are locally sourced except the meat substitutes, which are imported from Taiwan.

The food is prepared by Cambodian chefs with experience in Khmer, Chinese, Asian and Western culinary techniques.

One of the crowd-pleasing favourites at the restaurant is Malaysian fried rice. “We reformulated the recipe. It looks just like normal fried rice and you won’t find any chillies. But it is spicy when you taste it,” Jessy says.

She also recommends the braised assortment of eggs, tofu and mushrooms, a dish she says pairs perfectly with a bowl of plain rice.

Another popular dish, taro-roasted pork cake combines taro with satay flavours, making for a tasty, chewy concoction.

But Jessy says the star of the menu is the sweet and sour fish. It’s not just the presentation that makes people mistake it for a real fish, she says. It tastes like the real deal too.

Jessy combined a flavourful tomato sauce that gives the golden tofu skin a fishy aroma and taste.

She says most of the meat substitutes on the menu are made from the tofu skin or other varieties of tofu.

Prices range from $3 to $20 and dishes can be ordered in different sizes to suit any customer’s appetite.

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Meals can be ordered in different sizes, allowing customers to eat cheap if they prefer smaller portions. Hong Menea

Jessy says some of her regulars have been forced to prolong their stay in Cambodia due to the pandemic, and they are pleased to find a taste of home even if they can’t get there themselves.

“The customers who couldn’t go back because of Covid-19 said they come to our restaurant because they can enjoy similar dishes to the food in their country. They felt like they are home,” she says.

She says she’s also in the process of partnering with Food Panda and Nham24 to allow home and office deliveries.

Besides her mission to promote plant-based food, Jessy says she has always had a heart for the poor.

She says once a week, customers connect in a Facebook group and pool money together to order food for homeless people and hospital patients. Anyone is welcome to join, she says.

Jessy also leaves 20 boxes of food in front of JC Vegetarian every Saturday for people in need to take for free.

The restaurant offers 10 per cent off menu prices twice per month during Chinese Buddhist holy days.

JC Vegetarian restaurant is located at 102E0 & 104E0, Street 136, Phsar Kandal II commune, Daun Penh district, Phnom Penh. It is open from 7am to 9pm. For more information, call 099 519 234 or email [email protected].