Cooking Khmer in Cambodia
In Battambang Josh and I thought we’d take a cooking class. Battambang, a sleepy but quaint town a few hours west of Siem Reap, had some of the cheapest cooking courses in the country ($8) that were still highly recommended (thank you TripAdvisor). We ate dinner at a couple contenders before we decided on Nary’s Cooking School; a little restaurant cum cooking school run by a couple where the husband also moonlights as a guide. He spoke much better English, but she was clearly the one in charge of the kitchen.
He gave us a tour of the local food explaining fruits and vegetables that we didn’t know. I learned about “fish herb” a leafy green herb that smells and tastes like you’re eating seriously fishy-fish. It’s uncanny and not too pleasant. I also saw fresh turmeric for the first time. No powders here. We picked up a few ingredients for the dishes that Josh and I and two others students were going to have a hand at cooking and headed back.
While he was still in charge of being the primary communicator with us, the wife/chef had mastered enough English, gesticulation (that’s the most useful language anyhow) and had enough attitude that she kept telling the husband that he was doing it wrong. From using the mortar and pestle to filleting the fish, she was the master. Pretty soon she had us and the kitchen all to herself.
Aside from my sore arm (you really have to use that mortar and pestle for a loooong time!) we had a great time and our food came out looking and tasting pretty great. Out of the three dishes that we had a go at Lok Lak will definitely make an appearance in my kitchen at home. At least once, that is, to see if it’s a disaster when I’m on my own.
Lok Lak made me fall in love with Cambodian black pepper which is an integral ingredient in every Cambodian dish it seems. Supposedly, Kampot, in the south grows some of the best pepper in the world that French chefs wouldn’t be caught dead without. That was before the Khmer Rouge of course. Their ideals believed in “rice, not spice” and virtually all the pepper plantations were purposefully destroyed. Their crops are coming back in full force today. And I’m no French chef, but this pepper is a taste sensation and 1KG of those shriveled black pearls are on their way home for my kitchen. Yum.