By Stephen Vargha
Happenstance from 12,000 miles away has brought a new and delicious type of ethnic food to Cuenca.
“We had a party in 2008 for our October Memorial Day outside the hotel where Joe was,” said Streymom Un. “Joe came by, and I told him to come over and have a drink.”
Known by her friends and family as Rey, she is referring to Pchum Ben, otherwise known as “Ancestor’s Day.” It is the Cambodian 15-day observance where the final day is a time when many Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives of up to seven generations ago.
“For six months, we were just friends. Then, I asked Rey to go to Hong Kong with me,” said Joe Abbod. The businessman from Omaha, Nebraska made several trips to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for his import-export business.
“We went to Hong Kong and Macao (a former Portuguese territory at the mouth of the Pearl River, west of Hong Kong) many times,” said Joe. “In 2009, we decided to be a couple.”
Six years later, Rey and Joe built a home in her hometown of Kampong Thom. It is about halfway between Phnom Penh and the northern border of Cambodia. “The house was built on my family’s farm,” said Rey. “We grew straw mushrooms and lots of rice.”
Cambodia’s staple is rice. They eat the regular white rice, but also the glutinous sticky rice. If rice isn’t on the table, its place is taken by noodles. The Khmer term for “To Eat” is “Nam Bai,” which directly translates to “Eat Rice.”
The couple moved to Cotacachi, Ecuador in 2013. “It was a bit too small for us,” said Joe. “It was boring. Six months was long enough for us to be there.”
They quickly settled on Cuenca and rented a place before planting roots in the city. “Rey and I decided we really liked Cuenca so we would build our home,” said Joe. “We built two condos with one on top of the other.”
The El Centro building was definitely built to high standards, even by what is built in the United States. “I think we overbuilt,” said Joe. “The building has Italian heated porcelain floors. Because of the 2016 7.8-magnitude Manabí earthquake, we built the place to be earthquake resistant. High-quality building materials were used throughout.”
Realizing the building was not going to be used in the way planned, the couple quickly came up with a solution. “Rey always wanted to open up a private dining room, so I suggested converting downstairs into a dining area,” said Joe.
“I do not need a huge kitchen,” said Rey. “Knowing ahead of time what to cook makes it easier. It is prepped so with my assistant, it is an easy thing to do.”
The cooking is all done upstairs in their home. It is a large kitchen that can handle as many as 22 people eating downstairs at the same time.
It is a very homey setting with a southeastern Asian flair. Their decorative accessories and furnishings reflect Khmer (Cambodian) culture and traditions. A large painting of a Cambodian princess hangs on one wall. Glass is prevalent in an intimate part of the downstairs dining area, providing lots of natural light. Plants and flower arrangements are everywhere.
If you look carefully, you will find a large glass jar of lemons pickling next to a jade plant. Known as an ancient fruit originating from Asia, the lemon is one of the most important ingredients in Cambodian cuisine. “My lemons are pickled for at least six months with Himalayan Sea salt,” said Rey. “I use them for my lemon chicken soup with toasted garlic.”
Soup features in most Cambodian meals and is served with other dishes as part of a main meal. Rey’s is a light, citrusy chicken broth with rice and herbs. It won’t pucker your mouth. She said it is very healthy and is used for people who are ill.
Because the country sits next door to Thailand, traditional Cambodian food is likened to Thai food, but with a precise set of flavors that are salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. They form a distinctive taste that is not as spicy and hot like Thai food.
Cambodians love their greens. And Rey loves to cook. “I just learned from mom when I was young. She was a very good cook, and I kept an eye on her to learn how to cook.”
Operation Menu, a covert U.S. Strategic Air Command tactical bombing campaign conducted in Cambodia a half-century ago hindered Rey’s mother and her cooking. “Mom lost a leg from the Americans bombing of her hometown,” said Rey. “It made it difficult for her to cook, but I always encouraged her.”
Rey’s encouragement began her cooking education. “The first thing I learned to cook was perfect rice in a small pot,” said Rey. “I then learned to cook spinach with toasted garlic and ginger.”
She learned to cook difficult dishes, too. “Sticky & Sweet Hot Chicken is probably the hardest Cambodian dish I have learned to cook,” said Rey. She describes the dish as tender pieces of chicken sautéed with garlic, honey chilies, and lemongrass.
It is probably one of her customers’ favorite dishes along with Lok Lak Beef Tenderloin (premium cuts of beef tenderloin cooked in a garlic red chili sauce) and Sticky & Sweet Hot Shrimp (medium sized shrimp sautéed with garlic, honey, chilies, and lemongrass).
An American woman recently exclaimed her love for the Cambodian Spring Wings. Basted in garlic, honey, and chilies, the expat exclaimed the chicken wings were the best she has had since moving to Cuenca almost three years ago.
When asked what her favorite dish is, Rey said, “I look to cook everything. I love to eat duck and Sticky & Sweet Hot Chicken.” She added, “People ask me about my duck, and I tell them they should try it!”
Her newest menu item is baby back ribs, which has already become a popular dish. Beside the ribs seared in Rey’ honey and garlic sauce, there are 16 other entrées to choose from. All have to be ordered before showing up for your meal.
Rey has learned to be creative with her cooking during the June paro, the indigenous strike that shut down much of Ecuador. “We could not get oyster sauce due to the roads being blocked,” said Rey. “Joe and I started experimenting with shitake mushrooms. It is very close to oyster sauce.”
Soy sauce for her dishes is mass produced in Japan. “I am not making soy sauce,” exclaimed Rey. “I know how to make it, but it is a lot of work.”
Cooking With Rey opened five months ago in the nondescript brick building. “We had six people the first night,” said Rey. “Greg and Pam brought four of their friends with them. As soon as they got home, they wrote a nice review in Gringo Post.”
There is nothing on the exterior of their home to indicate there is a business inside. “People love that there is no sign. They love the intimacy,” said Joe. “Some laugh and say it looks like a speakeasy.”
The couple are thinking about expanding their hours. “We are talking about having a limited lunch menu,” said Joe. “But that is definitely down the road.”
In the meantime, Rey is thinking about doing a fifth cooking video. It is one of her passions. “I want to do one about Cambodian Lamb,” said Rey.
You can try cooking her Cambodian meals from the videos or you can make a reservation for genuine Cambodian food. Please note that Rey is not doing any home deliveries so enjoy a long and delicious meal inside her Ecuadorian house.
Cooking With Rey, Coronel Guillermo Tálbot y Mariscal Sucre (across the street from Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno), Cuenca, Wednesday-Saturday: 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (last seating), Sunday: 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (last seating). By reservation only. For more information, to see the menu and to make reservations, click here
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.