Sweet, Sour & Spicy: Delectable Secrets of Ancient Khmer Culture
“Want to take a cooking class?’ My mother-in-law asked one morning, over breakfast. ‘A friend just sent a recommendation!’
We’d been exploring ancient Khmer temples in Siem Reap for three full days and were both suffering temple exhaustion. So you can imagine my relief when she suggested we take a break from the usual sightseeing and indulge in a different kind of tourist attraction that included learning healthy tasty recipes.
She hadn’t even finished uttering the sentence and I was already on the tuk-tuk, ready to go!
There are many reasons I travel the world. History, culture, and architecture are wonderful, but there’s something about food that sets my heart aflutter. Tropical, delicious, food. And, considering I’m forever hunting for quick easy healthy recipes I can emulate at home, I tend to indulge in cooking classes any chance I get.
Beyond Unique Escapes run daily Khmer cooking classes in Siem Reap, the most popular destination in Cambodia. Classes are held in a village on the outskirts of town and include a guided walk to explore traditional dwellings and learn about local cooking customs. Many households in Cambodia still rely heavily on coal-burning stoves and use intricately woven bamboo pots and banana leaves to cook rice and steam fish. Most families also grow their own herbs, ideal for Khmer cuisine that depends so heavily on aromatic mint, coriander, and basil. Unlike both its neighbours (Laos and Thailand), traditional Cambodian cuisine is flavorful, but not overly spicy.
On our own ‘traditional cooking class’ we used a combination of modern technology (all hail the gas portable stove!) and traditional methods. Because nothing can infuse flavour into a coconut fish curry, like a banana leaf.
It was really quite amazing to have such a modern set up in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Everyone had their own cooking station, complete with stove, pots, chopping boards, bowls and utensils.
First on our cooking itinerary was Bok Lahong, the spicy green papaya salad that is one of the healthiest, tastiest items on any Cambodian menu. Hosting a dinner party soon? Start off your meals with this dish and we guarantee your friends will be waxing lyrical about your cooking skills forever more. Best part? It takes just 10 minutes to prepare!
Admittedly, our main course took considerably longer to make, but fish amok is the kind of dish that’s always worth the wait. This traditional, Cambodian fish curry is considered the foremost national dish and combines galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste and lemon zest to create an absolute taste explosion. Add chunks of fresh white fish fillets, steam the whole heavenly parcel in a banana leaf, and you’ve got a thick, creamy gastronomic haven in a pouch.
Cambodian cuisine’s most divine feature is that it always aims at contrasts of flavours, colours and textures. Hot and cold is served together, as is sweet with spicy. This makes every dish incredibly addictive. The long-felt influence of the French in the country has created a modern cuisine which includes pâté and baguettes, but if you seek out a traditional Khmer epicurean experience you’ll still find plenty of dishes prepared they way they have been for centuries.
To create that contrasting flavour of traditional Cambodian cuisine at home, you can try one of these recipes from the cooking class.
- 1 green (unripened) papaya, shredded
- 1 cup chopped green beans
- 1 tomato, cut in thin wedges
- 4 garlic cloves
- 4 small green chillies
- Juice from 2 limes
- 2 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon raw brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon shrimp or anchovy paste
- 2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
- Chopped coriander for garnishing
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, chillies, paste and raw brown sugar, slowly adding the fish sauce and lime juice, until you have a lovely, smooth salad dressing.
- In a bowl, mix the papaya, green beans and tomatoes, add the dressing and gently toss.
- Sprinkle with roasted peanuts and coriander. This salad is a great accompaniment to roast chicken or fish.
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 3 lemongrass stalks (only the inner, tender part)
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- Small piece galangal, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon each of: turmeric, salt, chilli paste, brown sugar
- Ingredients for Amok
- ½ kg white, firm fish cut in large chunks
- ½ red pepper, julienned
- 1 cup shredded spinach leaves
- ½ teaspoon shrimp or anchovy paste
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, for cooking
- 1 tablespoon coconut cream
- To make the curry paste: Traditionally, all ingredients are pound together in a mortar and pestle and although this requires time and elbow grease it really intensifies the flavours and texture. Alternatively, you can always use a food processor for a super-quick recipe.
- Heat up the vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook the curry paste for one minute on medium heat and then, whilst slowly whisking, add paste, coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and salt.
- Once sauce is bubbling, add the spinach and stir.
- Add the fish, gently tossing to ensure all pieces are coated in the curry sauce. Simmer for just two minutes and turn off the stove.
- Add the egg and gently fold into the fish concoction. Rest for 2 minutes.
- Serve the fish curry in a bamboo leaf bowl, top with a dollop of coconut cream and julienned pepper, alongside a bowl of steamed rice.