If it hasn’t become clear from any of my previous posts, I’m kind of a food nerd. At home I’m always the friend who orders the weird item on the menu. So Asia is kind of a dream come true for my taste buds. Nicole, my traveling buddy for Cambodia, is as equally as nerdy as I am, so when we were in Battambang on her birthday we decided to take a cooking class.
The birthday girl, complete with her birthday cake that I busted into our hostel room with at 8AM.
We selected a restaurant called The Smoking Pot, as it was SUPER cheap ($10 for a 3-course meal that you get to choose!) and it was taught in the owner’s house, so it had a super authentic vibe to it. Funny name – the owner actually said that he had more people come in to ask him about buying weed than taking cooking classes (DISCLAIMER: They don’t sell weed, it was just an unfortunate choice of cooking school name).
Around 9AM on that beautiful Tuesday morning, our chariot picked us up from our hostel. And by chariot I mean little cart pulled by a motorcycle. Cambodia is so quaint.
The chariot in question.
Our first stop was the local market. I’m really kicking myself for not doing some kind of market tour earlier – it was like a whole new world. While the markets in Cambodia were a little different from my home market in Dan Chang, our guide explained what SO many things were that I hadn’t been able to recognize. I finally can pick out morning glory, I know now that what I’ve been buying ISN’T heart of palm but bamboo, and I know what turmeric looks like when it’s not ground up finely into a powder.
That morning glory doeeeeeee.
Market vibes. Can you spot the massive tongue?(Sorry Asia has turned me into such a sick individual)
For our 3-course meal we decided to cook Khmer Fish Amok, Lemongrass chicken, and sweet potatoes in coconut milk for dessert. Fish Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, and it’s one of the best curry dishes I’ve ever had.
We arrived at his house and was kind of a rural shack. His mother was helping out with the cooking, cleaning, and prep; and his cats were scurrying around our feet. He informed us that we wouldn’t be cooking with gas and electric, but only using traditional Khmer cooking methods. Dope!
So here’s a recipe for Fish Amok curry. Enjoy!
Fish Amok Curry
(Made for one person, most dishes in Thailand/Cambodia are cooked one serving at a time)
Snakehead Fish – 5 1-inch cubes
1 stalk lemongrass, minced
1 slice of Galangal root, no skin(it makes it bitter), minced
3-4 cloves of Garlic, no top/tail, remove skin
1-2 lady finger chilies, depending on your spice preferences, minced
1-2 slices tumeric root, minced
*2 cups coconut cream
2 straw mushrooms (oyster mushrooms if you don’t have them)
1.5 kaffeir lime leaves, no stem, minced
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Heaping teaspoon fresh palm sugar
Half a teaspoon salt
2 Banana leaves, cut into rectangles and folded into cups, for cooking (if you’re feeling festive)
Kittens playing around your feet and banana leaf cups, rustic AF.
*We actually made our coconut cream from scratch! We took a scoop of shredded coconut and put it into a cheesecloth. Then we simply rolled it like a piece of candy, squeezed, and out came coconut cream! I also learned that the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream is that coconut cream is more concentrated, whereas coconut milk is watered down a little bit.
To make the curry paste
Using a mortar and pestle, add the lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and turmeric. Ground up finely, the paste should turn a yellow color. Add the minced up chilies. Pound some more.
On the right is actually a little stove that we used to cook lemon grass chicken. Just toss as wok on top & go!
Add the curry paste to the coconut milk. Cut the mushrooms into whatever size you like (halved for me), and add them as well. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, salt, and mix.
If you ever used fresh palm sugar you know it’s kind of paste-y. Our instructor told us to pull it against the side of the bowl with the back of our spoons to mix it in, which was helpful.
Add the cubes of fish, pour into the banana leaf cups(or cooking dish) and put in a steamer. We cooked ours in a traditional coal steamer for 30 minutes. Since most of us westerners don’t just have one of those lying around, you also can throw it in a pan with some oil for 7 minutes. Our instructor told us that method isn’t as good because the oil messes with the texture.
Andddd voilá! Fish Amok. Plot twist – serve it with rice.
Hey Walking Dollar Sign, Feel Bad for Me
At the end of our meal we sat down with our instructor while we ate. Like I said, Nicole and I are food nerds, so we were chewing his ear off with a million different questions about Asian food/Cambodian food/local produce that we’ve never really had answered since we’ve been in Southeast Asia.
Then the conversation turned somewhere else – into yet another pity shpiel (spelling?) from our instructor. I really did love Cambodia, but it seemed around every turn in tourist areas someone was trying to sell us some sob story, and they really loved throwing the word “corruption” around.
The left is the sweet potato coconut milk combo we made for desert, and the right is The Smoking Pot restaurant.
This ploy for pity was about how most tourists don’t really want to try Khmer food. Most tourists who sign up for cooking classes at The Smoking Pot expect something that they don’t get, because “they don’t understand what true Khmer food is.” He then said that people just want to eat what they hear of other travelers eating, like Fish Amok and Lemongrass chicken(oops), and that’s it. He then mentioned how most restaurants serve spring rolls, fried rice, and fried noodles that aren’t truly Khmer, but only so they could keep their doors open by making tourists happy. He said he didn’t serve those at his restaurants, but mostly sold Fish Amok. After he mentioned it, I did realize that I had seen an insane amount of Thai food offered by restaurants in Cambodia. Always a crowd pleaser. Then he went on a rant about how unsafe overnight busses are, but that’s another post.
While I did agree with our instructor to some extent, I don’t think he understands how confusing it is trying to figure out local food by yourself. Us travelers eat what we’ve seen other travelers eat because it’s what we’ve found in our research online.
All in all, despite the little pity ploy, it was a great cooking class, and I’d definitely recommend.