From Slums to Fine Dining: Mariya Un Noun's Culinary Mission for Social Change in Cambodia
Chef Mariya Un Noun [Image source: Smiling Gecko]

From Slums to Fine Dining: Mariya Un Noun's Culinary Mission for Social Change in Cambodia

When we indulge in culinary masterpieces at a restaurant, the stories behind the hands that craft these dishes often escape our thoughts. In a 6-course fine dining experience held over two days at Aniba, diners will get to explore the Khmer culinary journey curated by Chef Mariya Un Noun, now the Head Chef at Farmhouse Resort and Spa, who rose from the slums of Cambodia.

The charitable event will also showcase photography work by Dr. Hannes Schmid, founder of Smiling Gecko, telling the story of the NGO that revolves around a mission to provide education and training for Cambodia’s underprivileged.

Chef Mariya lived in tough situations for half her life with most decisions made for her but seized numerous opportunities that brought her to where she is today.

Mariya Un Noun dinner at Aniba
The 6-course Nouvelle Khmer dinner is thoughtfully designed by Chef Mariya Un Noun with the support of Aniba’s Executive Chef Anas Shami, injecting modern interpretation to the traditionl cuisine.

Mariya’s Story:

Mariya Un Noun's journey began as a bud in a Cambodian slum, sold at the tender age of 12 and compelled to work to repay an abuser she bravely ran away from. A turning point occurred when a tuk-tuk driver connected her with Hannes Schmid, a philanthropist who initiated Smiling Gecko Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to school education and vocational training. Mariya and her child were taken in, and she was sent to school. Her culinary talent emerged unexpectedly when Schmid hosted the CEO of a hotel management school from Lucerne for dinner, and Mariya took over the cook station.

Following this revelation, Mariya was sent to pursue education as a chef in Switzerland, introducing European influences into her cooking style. She had the privilege of working in distinguished European establishments such as Hotel Widder in Zurich, Palace in Gstaad, and Chedi in Andermatt, collaborating with renowned chefs like Franck Giovannini and Andreas Caminada, all of whom were impressed by her talent and passion.

Today, Mariya stands as a staunch advocate for Smiling Gecko and serves as the head chef of fine dining restaurants Un and Chef’s Table, with the aim of introducing Nouvelle Khmer Cuisine to the world.

Here, Mariya shares insights into the uniqueness of Cambodian ingredients, the influence of Khmer cuisine on her dishes, and her vision for a better future for the community she works with. A bonus at the end is a recipe.

1. What are the dishes in Khmer cuisine that you want the world to know about the most and why?

If I had to pick one dish from Khmer cuisine to share with the world, it would definitely be Fish Amok. It's not just a meal; it's a piece of our rich Khmer history, passed down through generations. I learned how to cook it from my mother, and it holds a special place in my heart. Every time I make Fish Amok for international guests, I feel like I'm giving them a little taste of the beauty of Khmer flavours.

[Fish Amok, also known as Amok Trei, is believed to be a royal dish during the Khmer Empire as fish was hard to come by. It’s similar to Otak-Otak and uses yellow or green kroeung (curry) mixed with the fish paste, coconut milk and egg steamed in banana leaf box laid with great morinda leaf. Source: Wikipedia]

2. What are the Khmer dishes that are significant in defining your culinary style, and how does learning about European gastronomy integrate into your style?

Khmer cuisine, with its distinct flavours and techniques, is the foundation of my culinary style. Working alongside some of the world's finest chefs, such as Chef Franck Giovannini and Chef Andreas Caminada, opened my eyes to the art of blending traditional Khmer cooking with modern European gastronomy. I started experimenting with methods like sauce reduction and slow cooking, techniques I picked up from these culinary masters.

This fusion of styles led me back to the jungles and my own gardens, where I source fresh, local herbs and ingredients. My approach is all about honouring the rich, original flavours of Khmer dishes while infusing them with new life and creativity inspired by European gastronomy.

3. What is the inspiration behind the 6-course menu in the “A Journey Into The Realms Of Khmer Cuisine”?

The inspiration behind the 6-course menu in "An Indelible Evening for a Meaningful Cause" is to craft a symphony of tastes, seamlessly transitioning from one dish to the next. This culinary journey is designed to introduce our guests to the roots of New Khmer Cuisine, a style largely unfamiliar in the international culinary scene.

Mariya Un Noun Khmer dishes at Aniba
Chef Mariya integrates Khmer traditional cuisine with modern European style with the aim of bringing the culture to the world. 

4. How do you see Khmer cuisine evolving, and what role do you envision playing in its continued development?

Khmer cuisine, historically the root of Asian cuisine, did not progress much and was even overlooked after the Khmer Rouge period. Currently, a handful of young Cambodian chefs, including myself, are dedicated to revitalizing its authentic flavours, but with a modern twist.

New Khmer Cuisine is deeply anchored in traditional Khmer culinary traditions. We preserve authentic flavours by utilising locally sourced ingredients while presenting them in a creative manner. Additionally, we incorporate modern culinary techniques to extract the best possible flavours from our ingredients. Our signature six-course fine dining experience is designed to take diners on an extraordinary journey of taste, showcasing the evolution and potential of Khmer cuisine.

5. What is your vision for the community you work with through your culinary expertise?

My vision for the community I work with is deeply rooted in sharing my culinary skills and knowledge. Having risen from challenging circumstances, from the slums and factory work, unable to read or write, to becoming a chef, I understand the power of opportunity. I'm passionate about teaching my team at the Farmhouse and local people, so they too can seize similar opportunities.

Looking ahead, my goal for the next five years is to establish one of the best restaurants in Asia. I'm aware of the challenges, especially considering the limitations due to the backgrounds of our team members. However, I'm committed to trying our best to achieve this goal. I believe that one day, my efforts will be recognized, and I'll serve as a role model for the next generation

Swiss Photographer Hannes Schmid
A photography journey of Smiling Gecko by the founder, Hannes Schmid will be part of the dinner experience.

Menu - A Journey Into The Realms Of Khmer Cuisine by Chef Mariya Un Noun
Starter: Rainbow Hamachi Fillet Tartare, Kaffir Lime Yogurt Dressing
Soup: Lemongrass Red Curry Coconut Soup, Local Seabass Fillet, Mushroom
Refresher: Mango Sorbet, Passion Fruit Sauce with Chili
Intermediate: Eggplant Pumpkin Sauce, Ginger, Crispy rice
Main Course: Smoked Grouper Fish, Bamboo Shoot, Corn Foam, Kampot Pepper Sauce
Dessert: Vanilla Kampot Pepper Ice Cream with Palm Sugar Foam

A Journey Into The Realms Of Khmer Cuisine by Chef Mariya Un Noun at Aniba runs for 2 days, 21 and 22 January 2024, 5.30pm and 8.30pm slots. Make your reservation here.


Bonus: Recipe

Southeast Asian countries share many common ingredients, Chef Mariya share with us a popular Khmer dish that we can easily replicate at home in Malaysia.

Khmer Spring Rolls

Khmer Spring Rolls With Homemade Peanut Sauce
For 4 People Servings

For The Spring Rolls
1 pack of rice paper
400g rice noodles
80g fresh red chili
80g carrots
80g cucumber
180g green papaya
120g green leaf lettuce
20g Thai basil
300g shrimps
A few dashes of lime juice
Spring onions or fresh coriander for decoration

For The Peanut Sauce
150g unsalted peanuts
3-4 cloves of garlic
50g shallots
60g fresh red chili
200ml water
40ml lime juice
130g fish sauce (or soy sauce)
20g palm sugar


1. Grind the peanuts, garlic, shallots and chili in a blender or mortar and place in a bowl. Add water, lime juice and fish or soy sauce and palm sugar and stir. Set aside.

2. Cut the chili, carrots, cucumber and green papaya into fine strips, season with salt, pepper and a little bit of lime juice.

3. Spread the ingredients from step 2) and all the remaining ingredients on the rice paper and roll up.

4. Cut the rolls diagonally. Serve with the peanut sauce and a few leaves of coriander or finely chopped spring onions.

[All images are provided by Smiling Gecko]

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