This week I met Martel, one of my favourite people in Phnom Penh, at Malis, one of my favourite breakfast venues (right), providing me with the perfect segue to blog about Cambodian food.
Martel and I spent a Saturday in November at the popular Cambodian Cooking Class organised through Frizz Restaurant. The classes are run by Heng, a lovely man and a natural teacher, who graduated from the Friends training school.
Our day began at the Psar Kandal, where we inspected the fresh ingredients that characterise Khmer cooking: lemongrass, tamarind, lime, ginger, pra hoc (smelly fermented fish sauce), Asian basil, saw mint and a range of other herbs whose name I don’t remember. Chillies are used sparingly and everything contains (palm) sugar and salt.
The class itself was held on a rooftop with space for us to prepare, cook and eat the food as we went. Most of our fellow budding chefs were resident in Phnm Penh, too–ECCC interns from Singapore, Ireland and the US, a Canadian PhD student, a couple of Australian teachers–a friendly group.
We began with fried spring rolls stuffed with shredded taro and carrot and accompanied by home-made sweet chilli sauce. It would violate intellectual property for me to post the recipes here (something no self-respecting author would encourage), but it’s probably fair to share a few useful tips: i.e. crowd the wok with spring rolls and turn occasionally when frying to ensure even cooking.
Next was one of my fave Khmer dishes, banana flower salad. Tip here is to use only the outer white petals and, as you shred, soak in water and the juice of a few limes to prevent discolouration.
Then came the really hard work: carving a carrot flower. Never again will I take for granted those intricate floral garnishes on the side of the dish. Vegetable carving is an artform; a bit more useful and it could become a craft outlet here for people like me who miss knitting!
After the carrot flower challenge, pounding spices in a stone mortar for a greung paste was almost a breeze. The greung was the basis for fish amok, probably the Khmer national dish, which was absolutely delicious.
But before cooking the amok, there was another crafting skill to master: banana-leaf cup making. Probably a more useful skill than carrot carving, the tip here is to cut the banana leaf into circles and soften over a gas flame before folding and fastening pleats with toothpicks.
I seldom eat dessert, but for mango with sweet sticky rice, I made an exception.
Stay tuned for a follow up post on favourite places to eat in Phnom Penh…