Cambodia, Part 2: Real Food

30 Jul

My last post was all about snacks: now we’re moving onto the main course. Khmer (the majority ethnic group in Cambodia, and how most Cambodians refer to Cambodian things) cuisine isn’t particularly well-known outside of Cambodia, and I had no idea what to expect when I went to Siem Reap. It shares a lot of similarities with Thai and Vietnamese food, as well as having some Chinese influences, but with one major difference: it’s not spicy. At all. Even imports from Thailand, like tom yum soup, don’t include the chili. Instead, Khmer food gets its peppery kick from copious amounts of raw garlic and pepper, which is a specialty of the Siem Reap region.

A platter of Khmer specialties. From top left: fish amok, chicken curry, green papaya salad, "summer" rolls, crispy pork ribs, and stir-fried morning glory

By our fifth day in Siem Reap, we’d seen something like twelve temples, and we were kind of templed out. So we decided to take a cooking class at one of the local restaurants instead. Our class was held at Le Tigre de Papier, but it’s by no means the only place offering classes; it seems that quite a few tourists are interested in taking a break from temple-viewing.

First on the curriculum was a visit to the market. The Old Market (Psar Chas) has a lot of stalls pushing touristy tchotchkes and T-shirts around its perimeter, but remains a traditional wet market at its center: the kind of market where locals line up to get their freshly clubbed snakeheads (a kind of fish, and yes, I did witness the clubbing, unfortunately).

Clockwise from top left: at the market with our diminutive instructor, Socheay; a tiny watermelon; lotus stalks; spice paste for amok

Socheay, our instructor, answered all of our “what’s that?” questions and pointed out interesting foodstuffs, like pea-sized eggplants. After picking up some jackfruit to snack on during class, we headed back to the kitchen.

On the menu: pumpkin coconut soup, banana blossom salad, fish amok, Khmer chicken (chicken leg grilled with spices), and sticky rice with mango.

Khmer chicken marinating in spices; turmeric can really stain your fingers.

We made all the spice pastes and dressings by hand, using a mortar and pestle, though Socheay confessed that she usually uses a food processor at home — or just buys paste from a stall at the market.

Banana blossom salad, served in petals. The garnishing is the work of Socheay and her assistants.

Unlike the Malaysian version, the Khmer version of banana blossom salad is made with raw banana blossom, which tastes more like cabbage when uncooked. The shredded blossom is tossed with a dressing of shallots, lime juice, fish sauce, and (at our request) chilis. Reflecting the apparent aversion Cambodians have to spice, Socheay said that the dressing was too hot for her.

Top, Khmer chicken; bottom, fish amok

Amok is probably the most famous of Khmer dishes. Pieces of fish, chicken, or beef are cooked with a turmeric-and-lemongrass-based spice paste in coconut milk, along with strips of something Socheay called “amok leaf,” and which a quick Google search reveals to be the leaves of the noni tree — possibly the most disgusting fruit known to humanity, but which is rumored to have medicinal properties. Traditionally, the mixture is steamed in banana leaf cups, but for ease, our version was cooked in a pan. The flavor is similar to otak-otak, the Nyonya steamed fish cake, but a lot less spicy.

The best part of a cooking class, of course, is feasting on the fruits of your labor. I’ll leave it to the dessert course to sum up our impressions of Khmer cuisine:

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