I am an aspiring domestic goddess and my culinary skills can be best regarded as utilitarian. My ambitious projects turn out to be disasters of catastrophic proportions and my hastily rustled meals are the real stars. It had not always been like this and there had been a time when I had found cooking to be seriously soothing.
However, with changing roles, times and life demands, work had taken priority and my profession had not nurtured my dream of being a good, creative cook. But, till today, I love the colours, sights and smells of a fresh wet market and aroma of food is simply orgiastic for me. The last few years have been professionally very hectic for me and time and continents have raced at breakneck speed. 2015 have been kinder and thus once again, I have time to indulge in my favourite activities.
Immediately food trails and cooking classes started featuring on my itineraries and I am in love with the experiences ever since. My first ever Khmer cooking class (or any cooking class for that matter) has been a recent development in my travel style and it is not the only change that has happened. Solo trips have slowly turned into family affairs and my partner in crime (and life) takes better photographs than me.
Birds of a feather flock together and we, as a team of inquisitive explorers are enjoying every bit of our travails. Our Khmer cooking class had been an impromptu decision, typical of us and it has been one of our best travel experiences. Hosted by a young self taught chef Thoun Sovannara (Nara), the class had been held at the spacious kitchen of the Feel Good Cafe in Phnom Penh and it had been the perfect way to spend a rainy Cambodian afternoon, followed by feasting on our own cooked dishes.
The menu had been a seemingly simple three course meal of banana flower salad, fish amok and Khmer chicken curry. The jewel of Cambodian cuisine, fish amok had been the obvious highlight and I had fallen in love with the crunchy banana flower salad. Often overlooked by most food lovers and global cuisine experts, Cambodian cuisine is simply delightful. Khmer recipes have been handed down word of mouth through generations and the cuisine is one delicious potpourri of Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, French, Spanish and Portuguese influences.
The Cambodians are masters at blending spices and they love using local and imported spices generously. The result is an interesting range of highly fragrant and flavourful dishes, in which each individual spice and ingredient makes its presence felt with each bite. Now Khmer spices include some strong flavoured ingredients like galangal, lemongrass, shallot, coconut milk, garlic, kaffir lime leaf, star anise, turmeric etc and thus creating the unique blend called “kroueng” is no mean feat. The spice mix is traditionally pounded in stone mortar and pestle and the Khmer cuisine uniqueness does not end there.
Cambodians love pepper as much as chilies and tamarind and jaggery (fermented palm sugar) are heavily used. Pepper, whether green or matured, is of national pride to the Cambodians and the province of Kampot produces one of the most expensive variety in the world. Introduced by the French colonialists, Kampot pepper used to be a huge rage during the 20th century after which it had nearly faded into oblivion. Recent revival techniques have again put it in the global culinary map and once again master chefs from across the world are swearing by these precious pearls of flavour. Rice is another Cambodian highlight and from fragrant jasmine malis to brown rice, wild rice etc, the list of the Khmer staple is very impressive.
It is consumed throughout the day in many forms and Cambodians are passionate eaters. Cambodians meals always include rice and it is accompanied by soups, curries, salads etc. Delightful uses of fresh vegetables and fruits are also typically Khmer and fish rules the kingdom. Fermented fish and prawn pastes (prahouk and kapi respectively) are the heart and soul of Khmer cooking and Cambodian fresh markets are a photographers dream.
Familiar and exotic vegetables and fruits glisten from bamboo baskets at these markets and the fish section is the most interesting part. Cambodia is puddled by legendary rivers and lakes and a lovely coastline borders it. Needless to say, it is a fish heavy cuisine and different meats like chicken, pork and beef feature in it. Many unusual ingredients like turtle, frog, tarantulas, red ants, cockles, mussels, snails etc are also relished here and it had been at a Cambodian boy’s birthday party that I had stumbled upon authentic Khmer dishes. The party had been quite eventful and complete with power cuts, drunk men and dancing to booming Khmer music, it had been an experience of a lifetime.
But what had stood apart from all the festivities, had been an array of most interesting dishes I have ever tasted. Those dishes have been more fiery than their touristy counterparts and water cress, bold red chilies, beef cubes, mushrooms, dried fish, local pork sausages and red tree ants have been generously used in them. They had been pretty delicious too and my favourite had been the savoury thinly sliced beef with ginger, lemongrass, shallots, tree ants with an extra helping of ant larvae on the side.
Bold cuisine (except for extreme exotic meats like dog, snake etc) do not gross me out and I am a die hard fan of Cambodian fried insect snacks. Cheap, wholesome and too crunchy to realize the main ingredient, plenty of my Cambodian evenings have been spent munching them to the dozen and I simply love their barbecues. Every evening Cambodia gets enveloped in delicious smoky aromas and charcoal grills busily churn out big chunks of barbecued beef. Every edible portion of a cow is grilled there to perfection and each platter comes with fresh salad, dips, meat and sweating bottles of local beer. It is a place where working men and friends gather to eat, drink and relax and Cambodians are quite liberal with their beer. With the deepening of evening skies, grills burn brighter and eventually karaoke strains fill the Khmer night air.
Raucous, food loaded and fun filled, those barbecues make some of my most memorable Cambodian food moments; but it is our Khmer cooking class which is closest to my heart. Sharing is caring and what can be better, than trying out a whole new experience together? A part of our initiative to support local enterprises, the Feel Good Cafe cooking class had been easy on the soul with a whole lot of fun, good food and stolen kisses thrown in. Because after all, which woman can resist a man who cooks?
Feel Good Cafe has been established in 2013 by hospitality industry experts, Marc Adamson and Jose Riviera, who shared a joint vision of creating a self sustaining coffee business which employed, trained and empowered local youth. At present, the cafe and coffee roasters have two branches in Phnom Penh and the cooking class is their in house initiative to encourage their staff to dare to dream. Young chef Nara holds regular classes at Feel Good Cafe, No 79, street 136 Psar Kandal 1, Phnom Penh and there are 5 courses of Khmer dishes taught every week. For more information, inquiry or reservation, please click here
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE.