Spending a day in a cooking course wasn’t exactly part of the plan for Cambodian leg of the trip but having done it, I’m thankful I did. Having been stuck in Phnom Penh due to a painful visa application process the Thai embassy punished us with we were in dire need of something fun to do. Flicking through Lonely Planet and looking online I came across the Cambodia Cooking Class, a half or full day course in Khmer cooking and I was sold.
The cooking class is run as a side project from Frizz restaurant, well renown for their fish Amok (traditional Khmer curry) and that is where the group of 11 met at 9am. There we were introduced to our guide Heng, a 23 year old local with a good sense of humor. We later learned that he had spent a few years abroad learning different cuisines and even had some TV appearances before settling down with a family. Introductions finished we piled into tuk tuks destined for one of the larger local markets nestled no more than a block or two from the national museum. Unlike the market we visited with the Chiang Mai cooking course, this one seemed truly local. There weren’t hordes of different cooking schools rotating between various stalls for show and tell. Here, we were pretty much the only Caucasians, and it was awesome. Heng introduced us to a variety of different herbs and spices used in local dishes such as galangal, spring onions, lemongrass and tamarind whilst happily answering any question we may have. Unlike Thai markets which have an abundance of chili’s, Khmer dishes are generally a lot milder and use less (or no) chili compared to neighboring countries because the recipes were established before the Portuguese first brought chili to the region.
After looking at the fresh fruit, veg and noodles we moved into the meat section which wouldn’t be the most pleasant experience for the queasy or vegetarian. Here you can see live fish, laying on trays flipping and flopping as they inch closer to death. Behind the trays are Khmer women who skilfully select, scale and fillet the fish with nothing but a meat cleaver before placing it on trays ready to dry and cure. The finished product can be seen dangling before our eyes from the top of nearby stalls. One stall down a pig heads and feet lay a tray whilst various other cuts hang from hooks. Finally, we come to the ‘free range’ chicken. I’m not sure that free range here means the same as back home but Heng assured us that that’s what they were. Anyway, heads, carcasses, feet and many other cuts of both fully grown and baby chickens lie on a tray whilst on the ground nearby are a small, live brood waiting to join the others. I hadn’t seen live chickens at any other market so far but apparently it is a very normal practice and pigs and cows would face the same demise on sight if it weren’t for the lack of room in the market. Having sufficiently touched, smelt and seen the market we piled back into tuk tuks headed for the rooftop kitchen where we would spend the rest of the day.
The rooftop kitchen is located in a small side street which gave an interesting three story view of a part of the city that I imagine alludes most visitors. 11 pestle and mortar’s, cutting boards and gas stovetops line the U shape cooking area where the individual dishes are be prepared. First up however, we work together to prepare some spring rolls. I’m given a huge taro root to grate whilst for a while before handing it on and the same is done with a carrot. Eating the taro root without proper preparation results in a bad itch so the taro had to be rinsed and squeezed of all its starch before we could add it to the mix. All of my too many years in a deli surprisingly came in use as we rolled the carrot, taro and peanut mixture in a sticky rice and potato sheet where if the folds and rolls weren’t right you’ll be left with a mouthful of oil. We then prepared what I assume to be a Khmer dipping sauce because it tasted a fair bit different to other’s I’d tried in Laos and Thailand, although it is probably available in Vietnam seeing as southern Vietnam used to be a part of Cambodia.
Lunch was to be fish amok, a Khmer red curry which is steamed in a banana leaf cup and served with rice. I’d had one before in Sihanoukville but this one was divine. It was thick, and spicy (I’m noticing a growing fondness for the spicy foods) and probably top 3 curries of the trip so far. We made the paste from scratch, ever so laboriously. Heng monitored us closely on how fine we shaved our lemongrass because if it was too thick, we’d be there for days pounding it out into a nice paste. Fingers stained with turmeric and arms sore we moved onto delicately folding the banana leaf into a cool little cup before filling it with the curry and fish mixture and placing it into the steamer. After 20 minutes, lunch was served!
The class was run at a very chilled out/set your own pace and after about an hour of eating an chatting with the other travelers we thought it best to move on to the third dish of the day: Banana blossom salad. This was a really nice, simple salad and a pleasure to try especially seeing as I’d never eaten (or thought to eat) a banana blossom. All it took was a few strips of blossom, which need to be prepared properly combined with a bunch of herbs, meat, peanuts and sauce.
After eating and chatting some more we moved on to the final dish of the day: sticky rice with coconut and mango. This dish wasn’t as hands on as all the previous ones and to be honest, I had no qualms with that. It was a hot day and even though there was a nice breeze, I was happy to watch the (seemingly) simple process of making sticky rice and the sauce. Most impressive for me was how he cut the mango. Coming from a region that produces some amazing mangoes, of which my family has a heritage in somewhere down the line, I still only use one way to cut it up. Slice the cheeks, score the cubes and invert (or scoop) out the golden sweet inside. Heng’s method was to use a large peeler on one cheek and then slicing it width ways to the seed. Then he would cut along the seed creating small rectangular pieces and repeat on the other side. It may just be me but I thought it was awesome and equally impressive as to how they cut up pineapples over here.
Savoring each forkful of desert until not a grain of rice remained on out plates it was time to say out thankyou’s and goodbyes and head home. The class runs Monday through Saturday and at a cost of only $20 is definitely something anyone wanting to get away from the museums and temples for a day should do. The classes are small and Heng provided us with a lot of information on Khmer cooking and its history and even taught us a bit on Cambodian/Thai relations which are getting pretty tense at the moment.