As a picky eater, I’m never entirely optimistic about the food when I visit a country for the first time. There are so many things that I don’t eat, which the rest of the world seems to love that travel can sometimes be difficult. Oddly enough, in the past I have had a lot of luck in Southeast Asia and over the years have come to truly love my foodie experiences in places like Thailand and Laos. I took things a step further though on a recent trip to Cambodia when I joined the chefs at the luxury hotel La Residence d’Angkor for a remarkable market tour and cooking class.
La Residence d’Angkor is part of the Belmond family of hotels (formally Orient-Express) which includes some of the best hotels in the world, including this serene property located in the heart of Siem Reap, Cambodia. After a quick and very easy direct flight from Hong Kong with DragonAir, I was in the thick of the action and ready to see and do as much as possible.
One of the great things about luxury hotels in Southeast Asia is their commitment to service, which extends to the activities they offer guests. The hotel made my brief three-day visit to Siem Reap easy and hassle free, as they do for all their guests, by doing everything from coordinating local tours to making sure I had enough time to relax by the pool. The long list of activities they offer isn’t centered only around the area’s attractions, but the hotel as well and as soon as I saw the cooking class option, I knew it was for me. There is no better way to quickly learn about a new culture than through its food and after two days of eating delicious local dishes, I knew it was a cuisine I had to learn more about.
Chef San Piseth had just returned from a sabbatical, but was ready to be thrown back into the fire with me, his first pupil in several months. We hopped into the back of a tuk-tuk and before I knew it we were in the middle of Siem Reap’s busy central market. There are several markets around town, but the central market is where everyone goes, from housewives to restaurant chefs. Walking around I saw a little bit of everything, from fresh fruits and vegetables, to more adventurous bites like crickets and grubs. Even though it was early, the heat of the day was already making its presence known and many folks wanted to get everything done before the weather went from Very Hot to Surface of the Sun hot.
We didn’t buy anything though; Chef Piseth said that to ensure quality and quantity, La Residence d’Angkor buys locally, but from sources they know and trust. He wanted me to see the ingredients we’d be using though, to understand their tastes, colors and textures before we got started. With that in mind, we tuk-tuk’d back to the beautiful hotel so I could take my first ever class exploring the wonders of Cambodian cuisine.
I love to cook, but given my normal hesitation towards eating too many vegetables, Southeast Asian cuisine is rarely on the menu. I was determined to give it a try though, and eagerly put on my apron and waited for Chef Piseth to show me the ropes. What progressed was my favorite meal of the trip – freshly made courses (that I helped with!) that didn’t just reflect the local community and culture, but were also refined and naturally delicious.
Cambodian cuisine is one of the oldest living culinary traditions in the world. With an emphasis on simple, fresh and seasonal cooking, it has been at the core of the Cambodian experience for centuries. Rice is naturally an important part of the food experience, something I witnessed firsthand as nearly every meal had a rice component to it and I tried my best to learn a few of the more than 100 words Cambodians have for this daily staple. Sadly, Cambodian cuisine was almost entirely wiped out during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, but in combination with increased tourism, these food traditions have experienced a resurgence in popularity, especially in the form of cooking classes for tourists.
With this in mind, I did my best to follow the lead of the amazingly proficient Chef Piseth. From assembling delicate spring rolls to tasting the broth of savory curries, I was there with him in the beautiful outdoor kitchen watching my knife cuts and doing my best to duplicate his stunning efforts. It was more than just a class though, it was also my lunch; the best part of any cooking experience. After we crafted each course, I was allowed to slowly savor it in the tree-canopied café and enjoy a truly unique experience.
I walked away from the class full and happy, but also wiser. I learned a lot about Cambodian culture that morning and afternoon, more than just how to make a spring roll. I learned about the key role food plays in Cambodia, no matter one’s social position, and I was so happy to have taken the time to slow down a bit and absorb the culture around me through its food.
Below are some recipes for the dishes I created, but be sure to book the class for yourself when you stay at the beautiful Residence d’Angkor. That’s why I love staying at hotels like the Belmond’s Residence d’Angkor. Sure, the rooms are great and the service is exceptional, but it’s also for the opportunity to engage in immersive experiences like the cooking class that makes the overall experience truly extraordinary.
Vegetable Spring Rolls with Sweet and Sour Dressing
1 pack rice paper
2 cups carrots, peeled and julienned
3 cups cucumbers peeled and julienned
7 ounces bean sprouts
7 ounces basil leaf
Roasted peanuts and fried garlic to taste
1. Soak the rice paper in water for 5 seconds and then put aside
2. Arrange carrots, cucumbers, basil leaf and bean sprouts on the rice paper and gently roll
3. Serve with fried garlic, roasted peanut and sweet and sour dressing
Chicken Soup with Lime Pickles Served with Long Leaf Lettuce and Deep Fried Garlic
1 ½ pounds sliced chicken
6 cups chicken stock
14 ounces mushroom of your choice
Onion to taste
3 ounces lemongrass
Pinch of kaffir lime leaf
3 pickled limes
3 ounces of lettuce
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tpsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ cup chopped garlic
¼ cup chicken powder
1. Heat vegetable oil and then fry garlic until brown in color
2. Bring stock to a boil in a large pot then add lemongrass, lime leaves, mushrooms, onion and limes. Cook for two minutes.
3. Add sliced chicken adding fish sauce, sugar, salt and chicken powder.
4. Cook until finished and serve with garlic mixed in the bowl with lettuce.
Traditional Khmer Chicken Amok and Steamed Jasmine Rice
2 ¼ pounds of chicken
1.7 cups onion
1 ¼ cups Khmer curry paste
4 cans coconut milk
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 cups cooking rice
1 ounce red chili
1 ounce kaffir lime
1 ounce Chicken powder
1. Sauté curry paste with vegetable oil and then add coconut milk. Strain afterwards.
2. Bring the amok sauce to a boil and then add chicken, onion, fish sauce, salt, sugar and chicken powder.
3. Keep cooking until chicken is cooked through and tender then remove from heat.
3. Before serving add a few drops of coconut milk, chili and kefir lime.
4. Serve with steamed rice.
15 small bananas
Black sesame seed
1. Peel bananas and put to the side
2. In a bowl, mix the tempura powder, sugar, coconut milk, water and sesame seed until well combined.
3. Soak the banana in the mixture and then deep fry.
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