Cruising around Glendale, one is nearly assaulted by a plethora of strip-mall restaurant delicacies available around every corner. Will tonight be three-cheese lasagna at the Olive Garden? Thai curry at Satara? Weinersnitzel at Haus Murphy’s? or Pho at Little Saigon? We Thunderbirds are lucky, I suppose, to have so many options and flavors to choose from just a delivery driver away.
While our temporary home in Phnom Penh lacks the strip mall charm of Phoenix, the culinary options are plentiful, from French and Australian to Chinese and Khmer. Wait….what is that last one? Khmer? So, this past weekend I decided to answer that very question myself, by enrolling in a half-day, hands-on Khmer cooking class offered by a local restaurant chef.
First, some history: Khmer cuisine dates back over 1,000 years to when the Angkor Empire ruled over most of Southeast Asia. As a result of this influence, many regional flavors such as Thai and Vietnamese, have their rootsin the Khmer kitchen. Interestingly, Khmer recipes date back to before the 16th century to when the Portuguese introduced the chili to the region. As a result, Khmer food is milder than other neighboring cuisines.
In order to understand where locals stock their kitchens, our chef-instructor took the class to an outdoor food market where we stopped at a variety of vegetable, meat, fish and other stalls to learn more about local ingredients. While the food was surely organic, this place was by no means Whole Foods or Scottsdale Farmers Market! After perusing the various vendors, we left by tuk tuk and arrived at a roof top kitchen on top of a residential building overlooking Phnom Penh.
The first course we learned to cook was a seemingly humble spring roll. The ingredients were simple: shredded taro root, shredded carrot, peanuts, salt, pepper, sugar and rice paper sheets. After 20 minutes of shredding, wrapping, rolling and frying, the class had the chance to taste the results of our effort. This was a great confidence builder, as I’m fairly sure I can re-create this recipe back home.
The real challenge was preparing Fish Amok, which is Cambodia’s national dish and can be ordered at nearly every Khmer restaurant in the country. Our chef-instructor taught us to make the two components of the dish from scratch: kroeung (fish curry) and the banana cup. Preparing kroeung required about 20 minutes of smashing a variety of ingredients into a thick paste using a mortar and pestle. These traditional ingredients included red chilies, garlic, lemongrass, lime, coconut milk, fish sauce, peanuts, egg and salt. Then white fish slices were added, which resulted in a soupy, curry mixture. Next, came the banana leaves. We folded these leaves into a bowl-shape and used them to create a container that holds the kroeung mixture while it was steaming on the stove. After another 20 minutes of steaming, our soupy mixture had solidified inside the banana leaf bowl and was ready to enjoy. While I may not be a connoisseur of Fish Amok, I must say that my preparation was certainly the best I’ve tasted to-date in Cambodia!
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to enhance my immersion into the Khmer culture through learning how to prepare some of the local foods. I hope to share the experience with friends at home as an alternative to dining out in the predictable, local restaurant scene!