Mud crabs with fresh green peppercorn
Khmer Kitchen in JP Nagar is a familiar location to South Bangaloreans. It was the old house of actor, littérateur and playwright Girish Karnad before it was converted into a Cambodian cuisine restaurant. Conceived by architect Naveen Reddy and his wife and business partner Veena, Khmer Kitchen is a labour of love.
When Veena wished to open an Asian themed café, Naveen was in Cambodia on an architectural project. Smitten by the food, he extended his trip and travelled to Battambang, Kampot and Kaoh Ker. Naveen ended up visiting Cambodia eight times to learn the nuances of garden cooking, village home cooking and the art of making rice noodles. There, he collaborated with local experts and chefs like Chef Kethana Dunnet, author of Cookin’ Cambodian, who taught Gordon Ramsay how to make Fish Amok. Based on intense culinary research with Chef Nak, food trials continued through the lockdown until Khmer Kitchen finally opened in December 2020.
To accommodate the new restaurant, the sloped Mangalore tile roof of Karnad’s home was carefully dismantled. The old house was left intact while steel beams and pillars were incorporated to take the weight of the new roof. Being a historic home, an ‘energy audit’ was carried out, which revealed that if the structure was brought down, the trees would go, altering the site’s positive energy. Karnad’s old library was retained as a reading room – a leafy ‘well’ on the upper floor peeks into it. Barring a branch trimmed to accommodate the transformer, not a single tree was cut. Khmer sculptures, a waterfall and an enchanting koi pond at the entrance transport you to Siem Reap as you notice old spathodea, ficus and jackfruit trees intermingling with the interiors.
The bedrock of Cambodian cuisine is rice and fish from the Mekong delta, ingredients like Kampot pepper and noni leaves besides kreoung, an aromatic curry paste intrinsic to Khmer cooking. Made of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and shallots, lantern chilli is added for red paste, fresh turmeric for yellow paste while scallion, coriander and mint are added for green paste. Unlike ready-to-use Thai curry paste, kreoung is made fresh everyday (never frozen or refrigerated) in a dosa batter grinder!
Khmer flavours are less spicy than Thai and subtle like Laotian or Vietnamese. There’s a smidgen of Chinese influence, while ‘kari’ bears an Indian imprint of curry and French desserts from its colonial legacy. Curries are lighter, thinner with less coconut milk and the nuanced flavours don’t sizzle your tongue – you can savour the meat, vegetables and sweet aftertaste of spices.
At Khmer Kitchen, complimentary rice chips are served with scallion dip, fragrant burnt chilli dip, spicy peanut dip and soya sauce. We tried the Chef’s Specials – Mud Crab with Green Peppercorn, slow-cooked Braised Pork Knuckle in Honey Soy Glaze, and ceremonial Lamb Shank Saraman Curry with a russet sauce similar to Massaman. The iconic Fish Amok, derived from ‘ho mok’ or steaming in banana leaf (basket) has a delightful soufflé or custard-like consistency; vegetarians get a pumpkin and tofu version. Cambodia is a land of rivers where paddy fields and streams are flush with fish. Nam Ban Chok, a peasant meal eaten before farming, is a one-pot noodle soup dish of rice flour-tapioca noodles served in a flavourful broth with sea bass and fish paste.
The restaurant highlights Cambodia’s key regions and ingredients with a large wall map and placemats. The national staple Kuy Tiev is a street dish of aromatic gelatinous pork broth and rice noodles topped with pork meatballs, minced pork and chilli. Royal Makh Mee or crispy rice noodles is tossed at the table with chilli garlic sauce, veggies and choice of protein.
Signature cocktails feature the tamarind-y tequila drink Wat de Ampil, grapefruit-vodka-vettiver mix Realm of Angkor, vodka-based Bayon Warrior fusing Indian spices and Khmer herbs besides gin-based cocktails like Spirit of Mekong and Enchanted Kep with basil and watermelon.
Different dishes require different types of rice, and in this regard, Khmer Kitchen is well stocked! The staple jasmine rice is of premium Angkor variety. Short grain and wild rice are used for Mekong fried rice, which pairs well with Red Kreoung pork curry. Sticky black wild rice is perfect for Chocolate Fondant or Black Pudding, with coconut ice-cream topped with rice crisps. Typical desserts include the special treat Royal Pumpkin Custard with butternut pumpkin and Kampot Pepper Crème Brulee with a crackling caramelised sugar topping and crunchy pepper.
Being an erstwhile residence, the charming nooks and open-air spaces provide separate dining venues, ensuring privacy and social distancing. The classy decor in vibrant ochre and teal shades is accented by exquisite gilded wallpapers, Khmer architecture prints, dramatic cane lamps besides boats, statues and artefacts from the Far East. The terrace is ideal for private parties and the restaurant doubles as a day cafe and a magical evening diner. Most ingredients are sourced from Thailand – the menu is currently 40% Cambodian with an extensive pan-Asian repertoire of dim sums, sushi, baos, salads and hearty soup bowls. Imports and supplies are limited but a hydroponics garden for microgreens and edible flowers is likely to be ready by midyear. The best part? Prices don’t break the bank. So if you’re not travelling any time soon to South East Asia, hop across to Khmer Kitchen!
Khmer Kitchen, 697, 15th cross, (Ring Road) 2nd Phase, JP Nagar, Bengaluru. Rs 1,800 for a meal for two (without alcohol)