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.
For more information:
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
opening soon in Siem Reap