Mixing tastes and traditions

Discover takes a mixology course that combines local ingredients and liqueurs into the Kingdom’s most delightful concoctions at one of Siem Reap’s coolest spots

Words by Amanda Kaufmann Photography by Sam Jam

We arrive at Asana Old Wooden House to find a picnic table laden with fresh herbs, fruits, fruit juices, liquor bottles, and kitchen and bar gadgets. Behind the table stands our instructor for the evening, Mean Sambo. She’s going to train us in how to make two of the bar’s signature cocktails that blend traditional Khmer flavours and the locally produced Sombai liqueur. The cocktail class is a joint venture between the distiller and this popular cocktail bar inside a converted historic house.

I chose to make two of the more popular drinks: the Siem Reap Monsoon and the Sombai Sling. For the former, I am handed rice paddy herb and kaffir lime leaves and told to coarsely chop them and then mash them with a pestle to bring out the aroma. As I set to it, Mean explains that kaffir leaves grow near rice paddies because of the water, and that Khmer cooks put rice paddy herb in fish soup and sometimes on top for the aroma. She shows me that the skin of the kaffir leaf is smooth, unlike the skin of a lime, though they have the same scent. To garnish the Monsoon, she demonstrates how to make a lemongrass straw – perhaps the simplest thing, but it brought me childlike giddiness.

After tasting my handiwork and deciding that it’s quite refreshing, we move on to the Sombai Sling. It requires much less preparation: chop a lime into quarters and drop shots of liqueur into a shaker with ice. The only problem I have is keeping hold of the freezing cocktail shaker. I have to rub my hands to bring them back to the ambient tropical temperature when I’m done. In the end, I get a tasty, sweet – and deceptively strong – cocktail out of the 15 seconds of frostbite.

After seeing what we can do with these liqueurs, it’s time to see where they are made. A tuk tuk picks us up and brings us to our next stop, the distillery and shop that sells the liqueur in hand-painted collectible bottles.

Sombai is located in an idyllic old Khmer house located down a dusty road on the outskirts of Siem Reap. As we walk up for a tour of the distillery, the sun shines over the roof of the two-storey structure set back from the road and through the leaves of the gorgeous bougainvillea tree beside it that’s likely three times as old.

We climb the steep staircase to the first floor where bookcases hold large glass jars filled with fruits and aromatics and small hand-painted bottles ready to replenish the shelves of the store on the ground floor below. Six ladies sit on a balcony in the front of the house in the shadow of the tree’s branches in the late afternoon sun. Some ladies are turning strips of magazines into shopping bags; others are tying strips of fabric cut from kramas around bottle tops and putting stickers on unpainted bottles. Next to them is a desk for the bottle painter, a deaf and mute man who was trained in lacquer painting at the local Angkor Artwork.

Sombai owner Lionel Maitrepierre shows us some hand-painted bottles and explains their infusion process. He and his wife, Jöelle Jean Louise, started the company after they moved to Cambodia in 2012 and couldn’t find alcohol as tasty as they could find in her home country of Mauritius. “So when we came here, we saw there is also this tradition of sra tnam [soaked wine], and so we said, ‘Okay, let’s mix different traditions into one,’” says Maitrepierre.

Sombai infuses traditional Cambodian rice alcohol with fresh produce in jars where the flavours soak into the liquid, changing its colour and flavour over months. “We always add a bit of sugarcane stick to make it sweeter,” says Maitrepierre. “So in terms of flavour and how easy it is to drink, it’s closer to the island.”

The shop sells eight standard flavours of liqueur, three special blends and three jams. The two most popular flavours are Lemon & Lemongrass and Coconut & Pineapple. French visitors tend to go for lemon flavour, explains Maitrepierre. The English prefer Mango & Green Chili and Americans like the Banana & Cinnamon. The Ginseng & Tamarind, a sweet/spicy/sour mix, is less popular with Westerners, unless they are already familiar with these ingredients, which are common in Asian food. “When you are not used to these flavours, you may find it a bit weird,” says Maitrepierre. “But if you are used to Asia flavours, then you quite like it.”

We taste all their liqueurs and jams as Maitrepierre describes each, surrounded by the shop’s collection of hand-painted bottles. A good idea, for once you’ve found the flavour that suits your palate you can immediately buy a unique bottle to bring home and not have to rely on memory alone.

Siem Reap Monsoon

  • Rice paddy and kaffir leaves
  • Jigger and shot of Mango & Green Chili liqueur
  • 3 jiggers and a shot of Lemon & Lemongrass liqueur
  • 3 jiggers and a shot of sugarcane juice
  • Juice of three-quarters of a lime
  • Lemongrass straw (see below)
  • Leaves and lime for garnish

Coarsely chop rice paddy herb and kaffir leaves and mash with a pestle. Add leaves and liquid ingredients to a glass with ice. Stir well and garnish with lemongrass straw and extra leaves and lime.

Lemongrass Straw
Chop off the bottom and top of lemongrass, leaving a length appropriate for a straw. Peel off the outer layer of the lemongrass and then the next. Stick the second inside the first. With the interior discarded, you now have a functioning straw!

Sombai Sling

  • Ice
  • Shot of Galangal & Tamarind liqueur
  • Shot of triple sec
  • Shot of cherry brandy
  • Shot of gin
  • 2 jiggers and a shot of pineapple juice
  • 3 drops angostura bitters
  • Juice of a whole lime

Add all ingredients to shaker with ice. Shake well. Pour in glass and garnish with a slice of pineapple and water lily petals.

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