Having a few days to spend in Phnom Penh waiting for our Thai visas, we decided to sign up for a Cambodian cooking class, choosing the course put on by Frizz restaurant, very creatively named “Cambodia Cooking Class”. Name aside, the class itself was reputed to be really good, and we were excited to add some new meals to our repertoire of Asian stir-frys and curries.
Being the frugal travelers you know us to be, we opted for the half-day class, meaning we’d learn how to cook two dishes instead of four. Yay, fried spring rolls and fish amok! Alas for banana blossom salad and mango with sticky rice. We got the recipes though, so maybe we can still do them.
In the morning, we met up with our fellow students and instructors, a pair of chefs from the restaurant. We all hopped in waiting tuk-tuks and headed down to the local market to pick up fresh ingredients and get a lesson in local foods. If there was one part of the day that was a little bit of a let down for me, it was this. Our guide basically just stopped at various stalls and told us what all the different fruits and vegetables were called. I had been thinking that we’d also learn what sorts of dishes they were used for, or how you would typically prepare them. I think also since we’d walked through a lot of markets on our own already, the novelty of the experience wasn’t there for me. But still, we saw some new things. We learned about black eggs, which are dipped in something dirt-like and then allowed to sit in the shade for 20 days. They apparently end up salty? We saw snakefish and tigerfish, and a big plastic bag of small crabs being dumped out. When we bought some fresh coconut milk, we learned of a great new way to lose a finger. They grind out the insides with a vertically mounted spinning blade that they push the coconut into with bare hands. Not for me!
Afterwards, we headed back to the kitchen, located on a breezy rooftop overlooking a park. Everything had been set up for us, with mortar, pestle, and burner at each cooking station. We sat down for some blessedly cold water as the staff prepared the ingredients we’d just bought. (In principle I wish we’d done this too, although it probably WAS pretty tedious).
We started off with an appetizer, fried spring rolls. The filling consists mostly of shredded taro root and carrots, with a bunch of salt, sugar, and pepper to get the right taste. But it’s not quite so easy.
Apparently the starch in taro is somewhat toxic, and makes you itchy! So we had to get that out. How? Well, we made a healthy mix of taro and salt. After about a minute, liquid started to leach out, and then we squoze and squoze. I was one of the volunteers, and it was quite a forearm workout. I joked that it was good training for climbing in southern Thailand later in the year. After that, we rinsed and squoze it 3 more times in new batches of fresh water until it was deemed ready.
After that treat, we were ready for the main course, fish amok. This is probably the quintessential traditional Khmer dish, at least in tourist areas, and is a slow cooked curry. I’d already had it twice in Siem Reap, with wildly different tastes, so I was curious to see how we’d be making it.
We started of with grinding the hell out of the various ingredients of the KREUNG, or curry paste. First were the dry goods, mainly galangal, little red chilis, and lemon grass.
After giving it all a throrough mashing up, we added half a fist of fresh, sliced tigerfish and let it marinade for a few minutes while we got to the most difficult part; the banana leaf bowls! We had to make a little steaming pot for our curry out of a round cut banana leaf and 4 toothpicks halves. Harder than it sounds to get something respectable, but we managed, even if it took a few tries.
For the last step, we added all our bowls to big steamer pots and covered them to simmer for 20 minutes. I think this is the key to amok; the slow cooking that takes most of the moisture out of the curry and leaves a moist semi solid blob, while impregnating the fish with the intense flavors.
After cooking we added cream of coconut and NHOR leaf strips as a final touch, and upended our masterpieces onto our steaming rice plates. I think every person in the class sighed with bliss on our first bites. It was really, really, really good. I would classify it as a completely different meal than the amok I’d had in other restaurants. The flavors were just so rich and varied and delicious.
At the end of the course, we got a recipe book with the dishes we’d just made, plus about ten more, which we’re looking forward to (re)creating for our friends and family when we get back home. For now, we’ll just be looking forward to the next chance we get to sign up for a class like this. It was definitely worth it, and a great way to spend a morning while picking up some new and useful skills.