We are currently in Battambang, a Cambodian town in the west of the country. Unlike Siem Reap, this is a town that is so far largely unspoilt by the mass tourism and numerous pizza and pasta restaurants that have sprung up near Angkor Wat. We had a tip off from another traveling family that there was a great cooking school in the area. Being a chef we had to check this out for ourselves.
Smokin’ Pot restaurant offers long-established cooking classes and at $10 per person looked great value, considering the great lunch after the lessons. I have to admit to having a very limited knowledge of Khmer dishes, sure everyone knows Thai dishes and even Vietnamese is common in most parts of the world but Cambodia, with all its recent trouble, hasn’t really pushed it’s own cuisine like the other countries. A shame really because Cambodian food has a lot going for it.
Like most cooking classes, our day started with the trip to the market to buy the ingredients. This is always my favourite part as you get to rub shoulders with the locals and see how they shop. As a people watcher it doesn’t get any better than the local markets in Asia. Battambang’s local market was one of the most interesting I’ve seen, featuring everything from live eels to frogs to snakes (headless I might add). It may look like chaos but it is in fact orderly with stalls arranged along neat walkways. You can find pictures from the market here. Not for the squeamish!
Our instructor had his favourite vendors supplying him with all his ingredients, chicken, fish, herbs and vegetables, all as fresh as you could possibly get them. The fish were taken live from a bucket, killed and filleted while we watched ( see images in the link above). No frozen fish here or IQF packed fillets to dig out of the freezer.
Back in the tuk-tuk clutching bags of food, we headed to the kitchen to start the lesson. This class, with Mr 10 and Mr 8 joining in for the first time, was going to be different and just as rewarding as other classes, if not more so. I love watching people learn to cook and get immense pleasure as they create something from nothing. Both boys had their own work stations and were fully involved in the cooking. Mr 8 was so pleased with how he managed and took great pride in preparing his dishes. Mr 10 was blown away with how great his tasted, he said he was going to cook it 3 times a day for his kids forever.
Each station had a full set of tools and ingredients and we followed the direction of the instructor to produce the curry paste that is so important to Asian cooking. Thai or Khmer, the paste is the corner-stone of the dish and it is always a joy to make it fresh with ingredients bought from the market.
Fish Amok was the first dish we made, it was very simple yet packed with flavour. Even the coconut milk had been made right in front of us from fresh coconuts at the market. No opening tins on this course.
This amok was steamed in a banana leaf boat, we all learnt how to make little water tight banana boats to hold our curry. Unusual touches like this made the day such a success. Everyone received a complete cook book on completing the course, the kids were excitedly talking of making all the dishes when we actually have a kitchen of our own again.
The best part of the day was when we ate the dishes we had cooked. Both the Fish Amok and Chicken, Basil and Morning Glory Stir Fry were amazing. To know that we can now make these dishes, and in fact have all the ingredients in our home back in FNQ, was a real treat. Sharing this with both the kids and another couple of friendly backpackers made it all the more special.