Eating in Cambodia: it’s good to have Friends

Friends-International is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help marginalized urban children and youth and their families. Their restaurants provide comfort beyond food for local street kids–and for a couple of weary travelers stranded in Cambodia.

3 dishes from Romdeng in Cambodia: banana flower salad, lotus stem salad and amok

Standing on the balcony of our hotel room, my husband and I stared at each other blankly. “Now what?”

We had just traveled from rural Vietnam to the heart of the Phnom Penh tourist district. We arrived 4 hours late, no food since breakfast, and our guide was no where to be found. The streets were teeming with sharp-eyed locals looking to make a buck and bleary-eyed foreigners looking for trouble. A billboard flashed, “Have you packed your moral compass?” We were not prepared for this.

“Well, let’s find something to eat and go from there.”

I flipped through our Footprint guidebook and something caught my eye: “Friends. Non-profit restaurant run by street kids…The food is delicious and cheap. Highly recommended.”

Coming in off the blinding pavement, Friends was an oasis. The server welcomed us shyly with the nervous smile of someone trying very hard to do a very good job. The menu featured Southeast Asian small plates, and highlighted that the water and ice were safe to drink. I’m not even sure what we ordered, but by the time we were done, we felt whole again, clean. Clean water. Clean food. Clean conscience.

Our bellies were full, but our hearts wanted more.

Friends, “Mith Samlanh” in Cambodian, began in 1994 when 3 travelers realized they had each been providing food to the local street kids but knew it was not enough to make a real difference. Friends-International is now an award-winning non-profit with centers in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Honduras, Mexico, Egypt and Myanmar.

According to their website, “Friends-International works with marginalised urban children and youth, their families and communities to become productive, independent citizens of their country. We do this by listening to and being guided by those who matter the most to us – the children and youth we work with everyday.”

They offer vocational training in mechanics, farming, textiles, hair and beauty, and, closest to my heart, hospitality–especially at their sister restaurant, Romdeng.

Romdeng is a more upscale restaurant, serving traditional Khmer cuisine in a beautifully renovated French villa. What I find most compelling is that in developing the menu for Romdeng, the founders went in search of authentic Cambodian food. When they had arrived in 1994, the food available was mostly variations of Chinese and Thai, the street food was unhygienic, and the memory of real Khmer fare had been erased.

As co-founder Sébastien Marot recounts in their magical cookbook, From Spiders to Water Lilies, “What a disappointment for me it was to find out that Cambodian food was virtually annihilated during the Khmer Rouge times, along with so much of the country’s culture…We were lucky that one of our teachers, also a former student of ours, was passionate about Cambodian recipes and…a terrific team was born.”

Restoring lives by restoring a food culture. This is the sort of thing that makes my heart sing.

So we happily made our way to Romdeng for dinner. We had the banana flower salad, the lotus root salad, and the famous Cambodian amok, a coconut curry served in a banana leaf bowl. And yes, we had the spiders. Finally, our hearts and bellies were full.

plate with edible tarantualas at Romdeng restaurant in Cambodia

For more information:

Visit the Friends International website at

Watch this special report from PBS News Hour: For Cambodian Street Kids, Friends International Works to Redefine Normal

And if you are visiting Cambodia, be sure to visit one of their restaurants. Their work has attracted school groups from around the world, and they are very accommodating with food allergies.

# 74 Street 174, Phnom Penh
For bookings: Tel +855 (0) 92 219 565

Friends the Restaurant
#215 Street 13 Phnom Penh
For bookings: Tel +855 (0) 12 802 072

Le Café Mith Samlanh
French Cultural Center
Street Keo Chea 184, Phnom Penh
Tel: 092 471 791

Marum Restaurant
opening soon in Siem Reap

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8 Comments on “Eating in Cambodia: it’s good to have Friends”

  1. nurulthecook
    31 August 2012 at 23:11 #

    Ooh!! I must say my stomach turns looking at the spiders. Chances are though that if it was presented on a plate after a beer or 2, I’d probably try! I’ve only tried the deep fried grasshopper like insect they have everywhere here. Wasn’t bad at all!

  2. Mary
    1 September 2012 at 03:12 #

    If I’m ever there, I’ll definitely check it out, but you won’t find me eating the spiders. Great write-up.

    • spotcleanfood
      1 September 2012 at 08:19 #

      Thanks, Mary! I’ll admit I’m an adventurous eater, but there’s plenty of great Cambodian food that’s spider-free.

      • Mary
        1 September 2012 at 11:39 #

        I’m sure there is. I love trying new foods, but eat mostly vegetarian, so I’m always looking for new things that are vegetarina-friendly. Spiders would be a stretch!

        • spotcleanfood
          4 September 2012 at 11:18 #

          Hi Mary, speaking of vegetarian and spider-free food, I just put up the recipe for a vegetarian Cambodian curry. It’s a bit time-consuming, but fun if you’re looking for new foods to try.

          • Mary
            5 September 2012 at 03:38 #

            Thanks for letti me know. I’ll check it out!

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