I am sure this story is much better in person than it is on the computer screen—for one thing, on this end it was edible!
Last weekend I spent a wonderful Saturday not at work—which is the usual routine—but at a Khmer cooking class. Unlike many tourist destinations, finding a Cambodian cooking class is not that easy; although the food itself is quite tasty. But, leave it to Molly (whose son is a chef in London) to find one. A small Khmer restaurant was opened 4 years ago by a barang (foreigner) living here in Phnom Penh. Along with his restaurant, he offers a cooking class 6 days a week. Technically, he does none of the cooking, but leaves that up to the locals. Originally he thought the idea would be a hit with the tourists (which it is); but it also turns out that there are quite a few expatriates who go as well. He only advertises via his website, a few brochures, and word of mouth.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into—but it was memorable. This particular Saturday we had 5 students: Molly (aforementioned friend and former Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova), Yuri (a Russian friend from Moldova), two vegetarian girls who live here in Phnom Penh, and myself.
We started the day bright and early at 9am by going to the market with our chef. Although we did not buy all the ingredients, we did learn where to buy all the ingredients. Also, she was wonderful about explaining what all the unique and exotic foods were and how to pick them. Even more helpful, she taught me how to distinguish a normal egg (like you would buy in the states) from an egg with a fully formed chicken or duck in it (as you might enjoy if you came here—so far I have passed). This is actually a great skill to have as fear has kept me buying overpriced eggs from the supermarkets. After an hour or so at the market, we headed back to the restaurant and picked up our bags.
The class is actually held not at the restaurant, which is small, but at a house out on a peninsula. This place provided more space, a great peaceful atmosphere, and a beautiful view. We made a traditional Khmer four course meal: papaya salad, green curry, amok (a traditional fish dish), and bananas tapioca with coconut milk. The vegetarians made everything with tofu or nuts to replace the fish and meat. We learned to make everything completely from scratch (including shredding our own green papaya and pounding our own curry) and in individual portions. After each course was completed, we sat down and ate together. Delicious! In the end the course ran for 8 hours! And by the end, I was totally stuffed, very satisfied, and planning meals for when I come home. The best part is that at the end of the class, each of us got a small cookbook to bring home. The cookbook had not only the recipes we had made but also other ones taught!
Shredded green papaya mixed with a paste of carrots, dried shrimp, hot sauce, garlic, fish sauce, and more served over a bed of greens (including fresh basil and morning glory) and sprinkled with peanuts.
We actually made the curry paste from scratch, and then cooked it with vegetables, peanuts, and chicken. See the above picture for the step by step.
This is possibly the quintessential, traditional Khmer food. It is exceptionally tasty and, to my surprise, has been uniformly wonderful everywhere I have eaten it from fancy restaurants to street corner venders. It is fish (traditionally catfish) cubed and mixed with a paste that is similar to red curry. This is put into either a banana leaf boat or ½ a hollowed coconut with an egg and coconut milk mixture. It is then steamed for 30 minutes. In the case of this class I learned to make the banana leaf boats which entails holding fresh banana leafs in an open flame before fixing the corners of the boat in place with broken toothpicks.
Banana tapioca with coconut milk:
Just what it sounds like: sweet, fruity, wonderfulness.
P.S. If anyone wants to come visit, this is a great activity and lots of fun. It is run completely in English and only costs $20.00 for the whole day (including transportation, food, and cookbook).