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