Outstanding dining at two distinctive restaurants in Cambodia and Vietnam

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Near the entrance at … hum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a young woman was cutting leaves to wrap around the ends of chopsticks used in place settings. The work station exuded a sense of calm, even when she left for a break.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2016. This is the 15th post about our experiences.

As we made our way from northeastern Vietnam, southwest to Cambodia and then to southeastern Vietnam, we were never at a loss for enticing places to eat. Many types of cuisine, other than that of the countries we were in, were represented too — Italian, French, Thai, American — and  more.

For more on cuisine, see my earlier posts about our Food on Foot tour in Hanoi (June 26), our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise (July 3, 10) and our cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City (Dec. 23, 2016).

Here are details of two outstanding meals from distinctive restaurants:

Marum, in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Not only is the food excellent, and the peaceful surroundings beautiful, but there is a strong social activism aspect in play also. With the temples of Angkor Wat being Siem Reap’s biggest draw, the unsavory side of tourism, such as child exploitation, disease and drug use, aren’t easily eradicated.

That’s where Marum can help. The restaurant is run by Kaliyan Mith (“good friends” in Khmer, the country’s official language), a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the Paris-based Friends International, also an NGO, whose goal it is provide education, training and child protection that can lead to better lives.

In practical terms at Marum, this consists of employing at-risk youth, some who may have formerly lived on the streets — or worse — as wait staff and cooks, and teaching them the hands-on skills needed to find employment in the hospitality industry.

Marum takes its name from the moringa tree, native to northern India, but found today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s fast-growing and its leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, earning it the nickname “tree of life.”

We sat outside at a wooden table, perched on red pillows atop sturdy, woven high-backed chairs. A huge umbrella cast welcome shade over us in the leafy courtyard. Standing fans were helping to circulate air among some patrons. An indoor space in the two-story wooden building behind us was set for a large group.

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Attentive wait staff are always near for patrons dining at Marum in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

One of our waiters was in training. He seemed young and a bit bashful, but also very eager to please, tentatively trying out a few words in English. The young woman mentoring him couldn’t have been more patient or encouraging, with smiles all around. All staff were clad in light gray short-sleeved T-shirts, black trousers and knee-length blue aprons tied at the waist.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we were very careful about drinking bottled water and checking how uncooked greens were washed throughout our trip, and we successfully avoided any intestinal distress.

So it’s always rewarding to find a restaurant that addresses these issues upfront, as Marum does on its menu. It clearly states that its “water and ice are pure, our veggies are safe to eat and all our food is MSG free.” It also will prepare food in keeping with diners’ dietary restrictions.

The menu (in English and with prices in dollars) also denotes which dishes are prepared in the Khmer tradition, which are particularly popular with students, and which are spicy. This entree, red tree ants, beef, kaffir lime and chile stir-fry, fits the first two categories.

Vegetarian choices include 10 dishes, seven each for seafood enthusiasts and meat lovers, and six options for dessert. (How does Sandan’s banana fritters with palm sugar caramel and lemon grass galangal ice cream sound? Sandan is a sister restaurant, and galangal is a root, similar to ginger.)

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From left: Spicy smoked eggplant dip with crispy Indian crackers, roast duck and pumpkin croquettes with citrus hoisin sauce, and Romdeng’s crispy noodle salad with tofu and sweet potato spring rolls.

We shared three dishes, which reminded me more of tapas plates than entrees:

* Spicy smoked eggplant dip with crispy Indian crackers, $3.75 (online menu lists grilled pita bread instead of crackers and the price has increased to $4);

* Romdeng’s crispy noodle salad with tofu and sweet potato spring rolls, served with a light dressing, $4 (now $4.50); (Romdeng is also a sister restaurant)

* Roast duck and pumpkin croquettes with citrus hoisin sauce, $6.25

All were delicious and prepared to order. The eggplant was pleasingly creamy and not too spicy, sort of an Asian baba ghanouj. The paper-thin crackers were much like triangular tortilla chips, with just a hint of salt.

The heaping, multivegetable salad was refreshing on a warm afternoon, and the spring rolls had just the right amount of crunch.

The little, log-shaped duck croquettes were a bit crumbly and heavy, but finger-lickingly scrumptious nonetheless, especially after a dip in the citrus hoisin sauce.

Susan also had a lime soda, served over ice, with sugar syrup, poured from a small white pitcher. I noticed other patrons sipping through red straws from coconut halves.

The menu has some intriguing selections, a little too wild for my palate, but consider these offerings:

* Mini crocodile burger with sriracha mayonnaise and banana chips, $5.50

* Barbecued frog legs on sugar cane skewers with pickled morning glory (a green vegetable like Swiss chard), $5.75

The most expensive dish on the menu was baked salmon fillet with spicy miso mirin butter, bok choy and wakame salad at $9.75.

Marum is part of the multinational Tree Restaurants, also a socially aware NGO, with these additional locations: Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng, both in Phnom Penh, Sandan in Sihanoukville, all in Cambodia; Makphet in Vientiane and Khaiphaen in Luang Prabang, both in Laos; Bahir Zaf in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Sanon in Bagan, Myanmar; and Khanun in Bangkok, Thailand. Restaurant profits are invested in student-trainees and social programs.

Quick reference: Marum, No. 8A, B Phum Slokram, east of the Siem Reap River, between Wat Polanka and the Catholic church. Open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily (kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m.). A Friends ’N’ Stuff fair-trade gift shop is also on the premises. It sells stuffed animals, a variety of cloth goods, purses and additional items made out of recycled magazines, and other souvenirs, the proceeds of which provide income so children can stay in school. http://tree-alliance.org/our-restaurants/marum.php?mm=or&sm=ma

… hum, vegetarian cafe and restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Elegance and tranquility are the watchwords for this eatery, within easy walking distance of  Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace, the residence of the South Vietnamese president until the Communists arrived in April 1975), and the War Remnants Museum, both of which we toured earlier in the day.

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Looking toward the entrance and outdoor seating by the lotus planter ponds at … hum, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Vietnamese artwork decorates the walls, complimenting an open floor plan and unfussy wooden tables and chairs and some orange seating. Combined with those elements and white, unadorned place settings, the ambience encourages “a culinary experience that is not only delicious and fulfilling, but also nourishes the soul with peace, healthfulness and grace,” as its website proclaims.

Lotus leaves and flowers abound, and diners can sit outside next to a pond planter or upstairs in the balcony. Buddha statues are also featured in the décor, drawing a link to the restaurant’s name.

According to the website, “hum originated from the Sanskrit mantra ‘om mani padme hum,’ ” or “om, to the jewel in the lotus, hum.” Think enlightenment through all-natural, delectable food in a calm environment, or “peace comes from within” as the exterior entrance wall informs.

The extensive menu features four snacks, nine appetizers, 15 signature salads, 12 options each for rice, veggie and soup and 10 desserts. Because of the growth in availability of international foods in recent years, nearly every ingredient on the menu was familiar, with the exception of cottonii (a seaweed), lingzhi (a mushroom) and kai-lan (aka gai-lan, a type of Chinese kale or broccoli). A wide variety of juices with colors spanning a rainbow and cocktails can also be ordered.

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From left: Pad Thai, veggies in quattro spice sauce and pineapple fried rice.

I had Pad Thai (about $4), because it’s a dish I know and like, with egg, tofu, bean sprouts and green onions. The menu praised its lower calories and carbohydrates, while noting its blend of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors. It came garnished with an attractive “flower” fashioned from a carrot.

Susan had pineapple fried rice, served in a hollowed-out pineapple half, with the green crown still attached (about $5). The fruit, the menu says, has helpful digestive enzymes and vitamin C. The rice was studded with pineapple cubes, raisins, gingko and cashews.

We shared veggies in quattro spice sauce (about $4), which in reality, was more stylishly presented than its name. Three crisp asparagus spears acted as skewers to support pieces of onion, zucchini, yellow squash, red bell peppers and potatoes.

It’s hard to say if we achieved “inner peace” with our filling dishes, but we certainly enjoyed what we ate and the overall atmosphere.

I asked the wait staff if I could have a couple of coasters as souvenirs. That elicited a quizzical look, but the request was granted. However, I was asked not to photograph them or post them on the Internet. I’ll honor that and just say that the brown coasters are square, of average size, and have … hum in orange italic script in the lower left corner. I have one on my coffee table and the other on a side table in my living room.

Quick reference: … hum, 32 Võ Văn Tan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; a second location is at 2 Thi Sách Street, P. Bến Nghé, District 1; http://www.humvietnam.vn

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