Breakfast or lunch at Sala Bai Restaurant is a must for foodies visiting Siem Reap.
Sala Bai is a vocational training school for young, disadvantaged Cambodians (mainly female) to learn all areas of the hotel and restaurant trade. All students are given a full scholarship to attend the school (which includes lessons, school supplies, books, uniforms) along with daily expenses (accommodation, food, bicycle, insurance and medical expenses).
The school takes on 100 students every year, accepting only the most motivated (with a preference for female) students who meet the criteria of coming from a low socio-economic background, with a minimum education level, between the ages of 17 and 23 and who have passed their four stage selection process.
Training is intense – as well learning the ins and outs of their chosen area of trade during the 11 month programme, the students learn English (a must in the tourist industry). For some, it’s their first exposure to learning English so there’s a lot of hard work involved.
I was most impressed that the training school is run for the benefit of its students, and not just to make a buck off the tourists. The restaurant is closed in the evenings and during the weekends so that students can study or visit their families.
Thanks to various hotel partners, all students are guaranteed a job when the graduate.
Diners are warned to be patient as staff are still in training but I couldn’t fault the service.
And now, to the food:
My dining partner and I chose spring rolls followed by a beef tamarind stew and the western set menu (three courses for a bargain $12). I was intrigued by the wasabi and wondered what the Eiffel Tower sauce might be.
Starters were delightful, especially the salmon with wasabi dressing. Even though I knew it was coming, my taste buds were pleasantly stimulated.
The spring rolls were also incredibly fresh with just the right amount of stuffing (not too many noodles jammed in there either!).
After some digesting time, the main course arrived.
The sauce was tasty but a little heavy for Siem Reap’s climate in May. I was also a bit disappointed by the sight of chips on my plate instead of mashed pumpkin with apple and basil (presumably they ran out). Everything else on the plate was well cooked and delicious. It was a real treat to eat vegetables that were cooked just enough to allow the beans to still snap, exploding with freshness. The chicken breast was also well cooked, stuffed with mushrooms and onions and holding its moisture.
The beef stew was also delicious with the aroma taste of tamarind strong on the palette.
After so much delicious food I was grateful we hadn’t ordered two set menus and only one dessert appeared.
The white chocolate panna cotta was cool and fresh and not at all heavy after the first two courses. I was still happy to share half of it with Barry though!
Despite a couple of disappointments (okay, just one really and chips aren’t all that bad) we had a very enjoyable lunch and all the food was beautifully presented. I’ll be going back for the Asian set menu at some point.
Barry (from Northern Ireland) and Simone (Australia) met while swing dancing in Scotland. They are in Southeast Asia, learning to combine work and travel. They started TheTrackAndOffIt.com so their parents would know where in the world they were, and to give advice to other travellers.
To fund their travels, Barry builds stuff online (www.endzone.co.uk). Simone teaches English while abroad and is also learning to market her recipe book, Grrr. Cupcake. (cupcakes for men) and is working on the next one. You can visit www.grrrbakery.com to find out more and for special offers.