Discover Cambodian food in Montreal

We spoke to Dylida Mao, the owner of Montreal’s only Cambodian restaurant, la Petite Mangue, about Cambodian cuisine, Southeast Asian food in Montreal and what it’s like to open a resto here.

Amok fish from la Petite Mangue

A few months ago,  29-year-old Dylida Mao opened Montreal’s only Cambodian restaurant, la Petite Mangue (300 Mont-Royal E.), in the Plateau. She says that though there are a handful of Cambodian-owned restaurants outside city borders (including her uncle’s in — of all places — Terrebonne), most are of the pan-Asian variety and few truly focus on the cuisine of their owners’ homeland.

Though la Petite Mangue dabbles in the dreaded Asian fusion, it concentrates on authentic (and delicious) dishes, like fish amok, which at la Petite Mangue comes in layers of coconut-milk-soaked and fragrantly spiced fish filets that are steamed in a banana leaf. The flavours we associate with Southeast Asian food — coconut, lemongrass, chili — are all present in the dishes but are used in different, almost more subtle ways than in the cuisine of countries like Thailand.

We spoke to Mao about Cambodian cuisine, Southeast Asian food in Montreal and what it’s like to open a restaurant here.

Gemma Horowitz: What are some of the basics of Cambodian food?
Dylida Mao: Cambodian food, it’s influenced by Indian cuisine. Back in the day, there were Indian kings in Cambodia. And they exported their spices to Cambodia and modified it into our style. So it’s not as spicy as Indian food. It’s not as strong. It’s more moderate, less spicy, for sure.

We focus more on seasonal stuff. And also what we can have in the local region. We use a lot of fish. We’re surrounded by freshwater, so we eat a lot of freshwater fish. It’s very similar to Thailand in a way, except that in Thailand, they use a lot coconut milk and a lot of chilies to bring out the taste, to make it stand out. We more mix, combine different spices together. They use exactly the same ingredients, but they don’t mix it together the way we do. They use lemongrass and turmeric, but they don’t mix it the way that we do.

GH: How do you mix it?
DM: We turn things into a fresh paste. We blend it together. We use banana leaves, lotus leaves, turmeric leaves. We use that to wrap the fish, bake the fish. Whatever we can find around the house, we’ll use it.

Dylida Mao

GH: How have people reacted to Cambodian food here?
DM: They really like it, but the only problem is that this is not a family business. I’m running it alone. It’s so much work that I have a lot of Cambodian dishes that I can put [on the menu], but I just need help to do that. I need other Cambodians, someone who knows Cambodian food really well. Sure, people like it but you cannot eat it very often. We had people who came every week and they were like, you need to put something else.

GH: So people demand long menus.
DM: They want a lot, instead of just Asian fusion. It’s not good enough for them. It has to be more. I’m planning toward winter to put more stuff out. It’s just this industry. People come and go so quickly. The turnaround is crazy.

GH: There’s not very good Asian food in the Plateau. A lot of fusion.
DM: I would love to be very different. I plan to have hot pot. It’s not hot pot exactly. This one is more like a stew. Although it’s really hot in Cambodia, we like our food really hot. So we have this hot pot over coals and we eat it while it’s boiling. It’s already cooked, but we like to make it hotter. I want to put out more fish dishes. I’d like to be able to do that.

GH: It seems like with Satay Brothers, Ruby Burma, you, Montreal is opening up to different kinds of Southeast Asian food.
DM: I think maybe people always spotted the trend. They know there’s demand for it. I think the Québécois are very adventurous with trying new things. Maybe Canadians in general. It’s just that this industry is extremely risky. It’s demanding physically. You need family help.

Cambodians have always wanted to open a restaurant [here], but they’re too scared. It requires so much investment and it goes down so fast. We got a lot of attention because we’re the first Cambodian here. My uncle told me there was a Cambodian restaurant here once, but it shut down 18 years ago.

GH: A restaurant owner here once told me that it’s a struggle to decide whether to import expensive ingredients from her homeland or whether to approximate the dish with ingredients available here.
DM: The spices in Cambodia, they’re really cheap. You can go to the stall and ask the lady for one cent of lemongrass. Here it’s the opposite.

Either fresh or dry, I’ve always found the ingredients I need here. The flavour is not the same. It’s not as fresh, but some is fresh. I don’t know where they import from, but I don’t think it’s Cambodia. I can’t tell exactly what the difference is, but the taste is different. We use coconut milk, and because it’s canned, it never comes out exactly how we remember. A lot of green leaves we use in Cambodia, we just go around the house and collect. You see it in front of someone’s house and ask them if you can collect.

GH: What is the best supermarket here for Southeast Asian ingredients?
DM: Marché Hawaii on Marcel-Laurin. They’re not the biggest. There’s C&T toward Laval. They’re a lot bigger. But Marche Hawaii always has everything I need. I pass by St-Denis and Jean-Talon to go to work every day. Whatever I need I just grab it from there. But I prefer the other one.

GH: What would you recommend someone who has never tried Cambodian cuisine try first?
DM: Definitely the fish [amok]. There’s nothing more Cambodian than that dish. Also, the caramelized pork with bamboo shoots. [It’s called Dad’s Favorite on the menu.] The glass noodles. We also eat a lot of glass noodles. 

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