Gathering under the warm glow of the Chef Nak Culinary Art Centre on March 10, a home cook showcases a traditional Khmer dish, “bok kroeung khmao”, to a panel of six judges.

The dish, literally translated as “black spice crush”, is a testament to the intricate collage of Cambodian cuisine, which often balances robust flavours with a meticulous approach to preparation. 

A culinary enthusiast, Nem Pov Pisey brought her own unique flair to the Khmer Cooking Contest, carefully crushing the black spice blend using a mortar and pestle, releasing the potent aromas of lemongrass, garlic, shallots and the deeply fragrant “kroeung” paste – a hallmark of Khmer culinary heritage. 

Served with a side of crisp, fresh vegetables and fragrant rice, the dish is a vibrant display of tradition meeting passion.

Origins of the dish

Pov Pisey, who loves family cooking, brought the dish from Preah Vihear province to the culinary centre in Kandal province, just outside the capital. 

The centre was founded by Ros Rattanak, a celebrity chef widely known as Chef Nak and renowned for her international award-winning Saoy – Royal Cambodian Home Cuisine cookbook.

On the table, a basket of fresh groceries and ready-to-eat food awaits the judging panel. Pov Pisey, busy with a small plate of rice and vegetables, says the dish could be made with chicken, pork or smoked fish. 

A beautiful presentation of a traditional Khmer dish at the competition on March 10.Heng Chivoan

“There are not many people who know about this ‘bok kroeung khmao’ dish,” she tells The Post. 

“So I really need to show it to everyone. In particular, I want to introduce the very complicated process where all the base ingredients are thinly sliced and well dried before being mixed and crushed,” she adds. 

In fact, the six judges, who are chefs at well-known restaurants, including Chef Nak, who often travels to rural areas to research Khmer cuisine, say they have never before encountered the dish. 

“I admit that although I have been researching Khmer cuisine at various places in Cambodia for years, I never encountered this,” says Chef Nak.

“Aside from the competition, showcasing indigenous cuisines aims to unearth and promote our Khmer culinary heritage for preservation across generations,” she adds.

As the judges lean in, spoons in hand, the anticipation in the room is palpable. Each judge takes their time to savor the flavours, allowing the complexity of the dish to unfold on their palates. 

A beautiful presentation of a traditional Khmer dish at the competition on March 10.Heng Chivoan

Pov Pisey looks on with bated breath, as the judges comment on the harmony of spices, the texture of the crushed mixture and how it pairs with the simple yet perfect backdrop of the vegetables and rice. 

Competition as a platform

Nak Mithona, who brought seaweed salad from Kampot province’s Chhouk district, shares the story of cultivating algae. 

“The process of preparing algae is meticulous and time-consuming, the 25-year-old teacher shares with The Post. 

“It involves sea planting, drying to remove salt and thorough cleaning for both appeal and edibility,” Mithona notes, underscoring its health benefits.

Chef Nak says the Khmer Cooking Contest aims to promote and showcase the diversity of Khmer cuisine in the region. 

Out of 70 candidates, only 10 were shortlisted to compete in front of the panel. 

A beautiful presentation of a traditional Khmer dish at the competition on March 10.Heng Chivoan

“This cooking competition serves as a platform for everyone to engage in discussion, listen and participate in collective thinking. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to express gratitude to the creators of culinary works that offer both delicious flavours and health benefits, along with the unique story behind each dish,” she says.

“When each candidate brings one dish, they receive nine other dishes in return. This exchange allows us to learn from one another, which is a positive aspect of the contest,” she adds. 

Ren Nara, a former MasterChef judge and board member of the Khmer Cooking Contest, expresses enthusiasm for the event, highlighting its role in unveiling numerous Khmer cuisines to people across the country and around the world.

“I must confess, there are dishes I’m not familiar with. However, during the preparation for this event, we were introduced to a wide variety of dishes,” he admits.

And the winners are…

The inaugural Khmer Cooking Contest crowned three winners: Huon Ratha secured 1st place with her traditional Khmer “amok” with snail; Khoun Saom Orn claimed the 2nd spot with Khmer noodles with “prahok bat kong wat”; and Pov Pisey achieved 3rd place with her “bok kroeung khmao”.

Housewife Pov Pisey, who joined the cook-off without worrying about winning or losing, made a simple appeal to the judges, especially Chef Nak, asking them to include the dish, a favorite in Preah Vihear province, in the next edition of their recipe book.

Heng Chivoan