Before her country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Irina Godlevskaya and her family from Tashkent, Uzbekistan had had enough of their lives in Central Asia’s most populous country.
A country of many ethnic groups and religions, Irina’s family found it hard to compete in the harsh post-Soviet business environment.
She was advised by many of her Cambodian friends about the possibility of a bright future and good business opportunities in the Kingdom.
Convinced, in 1990 she and her family uprooted and began their new lives 5,000km away in Southeast Asia.
They brought with them the taste and traditions of their motherland, opening Irina’s Russian Restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Today, 66-year-old Irina, along with her husband and daughter, run among Basaac Lane’s longest established and best known restaurants.
Sitting in the restaurant kitted out with traditional Russian decor, including Soviet iconography hanging on the wall, Irina’s
daughter Sok Alisa tells The Post: “My whole family would like to start a new life here in Cambodia because in my home country, Uzbekistan, it is difficult to live and run any business. My family is not rich, but we have run various small businesses – a bit of this and that – in our home country.”
Irina’s family had Cambodian friends before they even set foot in the Kingdom, and as fans of Russian food they encouraged her to set up shop here.
“Before my mother came here [Cambodia], her Cambodian friends suggested that she sell Russian dishes because they liked them,” says Alisa, who now holds Cambodian citizenship after almost three decades living in the Kingdom.
“We decided that it was time to settle in a new place, hoping for a better life. We sold everything, we had to start our new life here in Cambodia, opening this restaurant on a small scale, starting with only four tables. At that time, I noticed that Chinese and Thai restaurants dominated the food industry, it was quite diverse here, yet there was no Russian restaurant.”
The Embassy of the Russian Federation on Sothearos Boulevard was where Irina’s Russian Restaurant was first located.
“Before, my restaurant was inside the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Cambodia. At that time, almost all of my patrons were Russian. Later, I relocated my restaurant for public accessibility, and I received patrons from different nationalities, including Cambodians,” Irina says.
During the Soviet era, Cambodia and Russia enjoyed some cultural exchange, with a notable Khmer student community studying and living in Russia.
But Alisa says that Russian food and culture remain an unknown quantity to most Cambodians.
“Before, local people would not try Russian food as it was unfamiliar. They never even imagined sitting here enjoying Russian food, it sounds so uncommon. But after they try the dishes, they say they like them and they return for more,” Alisa says.
Irina’s Russian Restaurant serves traditional Russian cuisine. For vegetable lovers there is the Olivier salad, vinegrets, beetroot walnut salad (all at $4.90), shuba salmon tsar pelmeni ($7.50), vareniki with potatoes or cabbage ($5.50) and cabbage rolls (golubtsy – $5.90).
However, the restaurant’s most popular dish and best seller is the skewered meat called shashlyk. Patrons can choose pork ($25) or lamb ($35). For people keen to try an Uzbek dish there is plov ($35), a combination of rice with three types of meat (pork, beef and lamb).
Coming from a Muslim majority nation, the restaurant also has many Halal dishes.
Most of the ingredients used in Irina’s cuisine, including the meat, are imported from Russia, while the vegetables are locally sourced. The dishes are prepared by local Khmer chef who has been taught the art of Russian cuisine.
“Every five years, there is a Russian chef who comes to teach our local chef here in Cambodia to improve their knowledge and skills about authentic Russian dishes,” Alisa says.
After close to three decades running the restaurant, Alisa plans to expand.
“I’m planning to expand the menu to give our patrons more options. I would like to enrich our interior to give it a more Russian touch by importing souvenirs and decorations to display. I’m also hoping to create a home brewery and run a pub serving classic Russian craft beer,” she says.
Irina’s Russian Restaurant is located on Phnom Penh’s Street 29, near Basaac Lane. They can be contacted via Facebook (@Russiancousine) or telephone (012 833 524).