I travel for a lot of reasons, but let’s face it: the main one is food. What better way to learn about another culture than by stuffing your face? While I’ve been here about a week, I still felt like I hadn’t really gotten a good sense of Cambodian cuisine (partially because I’m too hot to eat a lot of the time, partially because I’ve been laid up with a stomach bug for the past couple of days). But today I was able to take Cambodian cooking class, and got a much better sense of the food culture here.
My tuk tuk picked me up around 9:00 this morning, and drove me a little bit outside the city center to the village where the class took place. I’ve been doing almost all of my exploring on foot, so it was cool to zip along on a motorbike and see a little bit more of Siem Reap.
When I arrived, I met my co-chefs for the day – a couple from India, and a guy from Australia, along with our two instructors. On the menu? Cambodian fish amok, mango salad with chicken, and sticky rice balls with palm sugar.
This was our workspace for the morning:And my personal station:
The first dish of the day was fish amok, a mild curry dish that’s very popular in Khmer cuisine. That little bowl contains the aromatics needed to make kroeung, an herb and spice paste that provides much of the flavor in amok. So we chopped up lemongrass, garlic, red onion, kaffir lime leaves (not pictured) and galangal, which is kind of like ginger but a bit stronger and more bitter. Then into the the mortar it all goes to get mashed up into kroeung, along with shrimp paste and turmeric.
And we’re mashing…
Ta-da! The paste gets thrown in the pot with oil, and is sauteed until fragrant. (Shrimp paste, much like fish sauce, smells like death but adds an umami flavor that would be otherwise really lacking. The Aussie was practically dry heaving, but you really just gotta hold your nose and do the damn thing.)
Next comes the coconut cream! Also known as the best part of any curry dish known to (wo)man. While that gets boiling, start chopping your fish (we used snakehead, but any white fish will do) and ngor amok leaves. (What, no amok leaves at your local ShopRite? You can use thinly sliced spinach instead.)
Into the pot they go, along with some chicken bouillon, salt, pepper, and sugar. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until fish is done and the flavors are to your liking.
Now that our main dish was done and set aside, we moved onto salad. They did most of the prep work on the salad for us, so all we really did was some grating and chopping. It included chicken, green mango, tomato, carrot, sweet basil, and saw leaf (which is a type of cilantro). The dressing was a mixture of palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, shallot, garlic, and roasted peanuts.
For dessert, we made sticky rice balls with palm sugar candy. My hands were too doughy to take photos, but all you do is combine glutinous rice flour with water until a dough forms. Then you take little balls of dough, and wrap them around pieces of palm sugar candy.
Then they get dropped into boiling water like little dumplings, and you take them about when they float to the top.
I was starving by the time we finished cooking, and more than ready to sample what I had made. Here were the final products:
I really enjoyed both the mango salad and the amok; the rice balls were not my favorite but I’m not much of a dessert person anyway. What really struck me about both the salad and the curry was the balance of flavors – it was a really good combination of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. And unlike Thai or Malaysian cuisine, it’s not at all spicy. I think the Western palate tends to be a bit more sensitive to spice, so if you’re new to Southeast Asian cooking, Cambodian food might be a good place to start.
I really enjoyed this class, and left thoroughly stuffed!
If you’re in Siem Reap and interested in taking a cooking class, be sure to check out Beyond Unique Escapes.