TOUCH­ING TRA­DI­TION

AMANSARA'S COOK­ING CLASS WHISKS STU­DENTS FROM HUM­MING MAR­KETS TO A STILTED HOUSE FOOT­STEPS FROM ANGKOR

Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - Words by El­lie Dyer Pho­tog­ra­phy by Sam Jam

A cook­ing class re­veals the se­crets of Kh­mer cui­sine

AS a be­guil­ing aroma wafts through the air, a friendly fig­ure whirls through the kitchen – slic­ing veg­eta­bles, tend­ing pots and clat­ter­ing pans – all the while of­fer­ing gen­tle en­cour­age­ment to the am­a­teurs fol­low­ing suit.

The scene is rem­i­nis­cent of one that is played out daily in homes across the globe: a knowl­edge­able el­der pass­ing on skills to a new generation hun­gry for knowl­edge. But this is a culi­nary en­counter with a lux­u­ri­ous twist.

We are whip­ping up an au­then­tic Cam­bo­dian feast un­der the tute­lage of Ouch Sam­bath, an ex­pe­ri­enced cook, in the mo­men­tous en­vi­rons of Siem Reap’s world-fa­mous Angkor Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park, as part of a cook­ing class or­gan­ised by Amansara, ar­guably Tem­ple Town’s finest ho­tel.

The jour­ney to the kitchen – a stylish yet rus­tic af­fair boast­ing bam­boo walls, open stoves and a win­dow look­ing out onto a lush gar­den and the 10th-cen­tury Srah Srang reser­voir be­yond – be­gan early that morn­ing.

A smart minibus had plucked us from the el­e­gance of the Amansara, it­self a for­mer guest villa of Cam­bo­dia’s much-loved King Fa­ther Norodom Si­hanouk, and de­posited us amongst the cap­ti­vat­ing chaos of Siem Reap’s ma­jor mar­ket, Psar Leu.

Within mo­ments we were im­mersed in a melt­ing pot of sights and smells. Cat­fish wrig­gled in con­tain­ers, await­ing the chop; mo­tor­bikes wove around lo­cals on the look­out for their next bar­gain; and stall­hold­ers guarded moun­tains of un­fa­mil­iar del­i­ca­cies.

Luck­ily, Amansara pas­try chef Orn Rady was on hand to lead us through the melee, de­mys­ti­fy­ing ex­otic sights and smells along the way. Vast bowls of thick paste were re­vealed to be con­tain­ers of pun­gent pra­hok – Cam­bo­dia’s beloved sta­ple of fer­mented fish paste. Bas­kets full of silk worms and bags of ants were ex­posed as ed­i­ble de­lights, while palm sugar dough­nuts,

Within mo­ments we were im­mersed in a melt­ing pot of sights and smells

sprin­kled with white sesame and doused with caramel, left us sali­vat­ing.

After pick­ing up a bag of fresh veg­eta­bles, we piled back in the bus for the short drive to Amansara’s spec­tac­u­lar Angkor oa­sis – a tra­di­tional stilted house set near the mag­nif­i­cent 12th-cen­tury tem­ple of Ban­teay Kdei – for a crash course in Cam­bo­dian cook­ery.

Amansara’s gen­eral man­ager, Sally Baughen, de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence as not only a chance “to learn about a cui­sine that is rel­a­tively un­known” but also one that al­lows par­tic­i­pants “to gain deeper in­sights into ru­ral life”. It’s a point demon­strated by the build­ing’s pas­toral set­ting, where the tran­quil­lity is only bro­ken by sounds typ­i­cal of the Cam­bo­dian coun­try­side: the whiz of a pass­ing bi­cy­cle and the faint echo of mu­sic pip­ing in the dis­tance.

Soon, un­der the care­ful tute­lage of Sam­bath a tor­nado of gas­tro­nomic ac­tiv­ity whirls into ac­tion. Our class be­gins by grap­pling with spring roll wrap­pers, us­ing a method of dip, fold and roll to trans­form a gen­er­ous pinch of chicken, veg­eta­bles and let­tuce into fat fin­ger-like ap­pe­tis­ers.

The treats prove fuel for the next few hours, in which cu­cum­ber, car­rot and white radish are trans­formed into chrouk chom­roh (pick­led veg­eta­bles) thanks to the ad­di­tion of gin­ger, lime juice, salt, sugar and fish sauce.

Novice hands are again put to work seg­ment­ing a juicy pomelo – an Asian fruit akin to a gi­ant grape­fruit – that will be paired with fresh prawns to cre­ate a tangy Cam­bo­dian salad, with the fin­ish­ing touch pro­vided by a burst of fresh basil.

Through­out, Sam­bath proves a foun­tain of knowl­edge, im­part­ing key ad­vice in his avun­cu­lar style – tips such as the op­ti­mum amount of wa­ter in which to cook per­fectly fluffy rice and how to best shape del­i­cately spiced ground pork around fra­grant le­mon­grass stalks to cre­ate ex­quis­ite grilled sachrut aing skew­ers.

The pièce de ré­sis­tance, how­ever, proves to be the amok trei, a na­tional favourite that won­der­fully show­cases an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of Cam­bo­dian cui­sine: tender fresh­wa­ter fish. Our ver­sion of the fa­mous curry is spiced with kroe­ung, a sta­ple spice paste con­tain­ing in­gre­di­ents typ­i­cal of the King­dom’s aro­matic cui­sine: chilli, le­mon­grass, gar­lic, galan­gal, turmeric and kaf­fir lime leaf. Co­conut milk and egg yolk add tex­ture to the creamy sauce, el­e­vated fur­ther by a gen­er­ous hand­ful of chopped green nyoa leaf.

We splurge on the morn­ing’s spoils at the house’s homely on-site din­ing room, sav­ing stom­ach space for a gen­er­ous por­tion of hand-rolled sticky dumplings sur­rounded by trop­i­cal fruit and topped with a spoon­ful of grated co­conut. Ear­lier, we had in­serted a pearl of solid sugar into each pale sphere, pro­vid­ing an en­dor­phin-laced kick to the end of the meal and ce­ment­ing the dis­cov­ery that, some­times, food tastes bet­ter when you make it your­self.

Rub­bing sat­is­fied bel­lies as but­ter­flies flit­ted among the trees and with an­cient ar­chae­o­log­i­cal won­ders just around the cor­ner, dis­cov­er­ing the se­crets of Cam­bo­dian cui­sine in this ru­ral idyll was truly an ex­pe­ri­ence to savour – long after the fruits of our labour had been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­voured.

Dis­cov­er­ing the se­crets of Cam­bo­dian cui­sine in this ru­ral idyll was truly an ex­pe­ri­ence to savour

Kitchen con­nec­tions: (from left) Amansara pas­try chef Orn Rady adds chilli to a stir fry; set­ting a lunch ta­ble at the ho­tel's Angkor cook­ing class venue; chop­ping in­gre­di­ents in­clud­ing onion and egg­plant

Na­ture's flavours: (clock­wise from top) Amansara's wooden stilted house where novice cooks con­verge; fresh veg­eta­bles used in a class; adding co­conut milk to a curry

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