Learning to cook like a local couldn’t be easier, thanks to the variety of classes and cooking adventures available across the Kingdom. Writer Eve Watling samples some of the finest. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Cambodian food is often overshadowed by the cuisine of its regional neighbours. Luckily, there are plenty of classes and tours around the country pushing the nation’s indigenous ingredients, recipes and traditional techniques back into the spotlight.
From creamy amok elegantly wrapped in banana leaf, spring rolls fried to crispy perfection, or even surprisingly succulent tarantula legs, here’s our guide to discovering the best of Khmer cuisine.
Feel Good Cooking school
Phnom Penh’s Feel Good cafe provides its young Khmer staff with the resources and support to start their own businesses under the Feel Good umbrella. Nara Thuon, an ambitious Feel Good chef, designed and runs this cooking course, drawing inspiration from the food of his native Battambang.
Nara has designed five menus of four courses, which include Khmer chicken curry, banana petal salad and fish amok. Before we start cooking, we pay a visit to Kandal, to be introduced to our ingredients. Nara’s tutelage goes beyond the culinary: we learn that the rind of the bubble-skinned kaffir lime is used as a natural snake deterrent.
Back in the kitchen, we learn how to chop lemongrass stalks into fine ringlets, before pounding them up with other spices to create our amok paste. We stir the paste into a pan of reduced coconut milk, pour it over fish and finally steam it – and end up with a miraculously fragrant amok.
79 Street 136, Phnom Penh. Tel: 095 380 163
La Table Khmere
The cooking class at La Table Khmere takes place in an impressively well-designed stainless steel kitchen, jars of dried ingredients lining the walls. After a trip to BKK market to buy our own fresh ingredients, we’re taught how to chop and layer lettuce, carrot, bean sprouts and cucumber for our vegetarian spring rolls. Next, we learn how to fold it all up in rice paper, which is a little like doing origami with a sheet of wet paper – and just as tricky. Yet somehow, we end up with an aesthetically pleasing – not to mention delicious – pile of spring rolls.
After making our amok main, including the little bowls crafted from banana leaf and toothpicks, we round off the meal with banana and jelly desert. A combination of boiled bananas, shredded jelly and coconut milk, it’s ultra-sweet and creamy, with big, fruity flavours. A perfect introduction to the technical side of Khmer cooking.
11E Street 278, Phnom Penh. Tel: 012 238 068
Vespa tours have been operating in Southeast Asia since 2007, their fleet of iconic Italian scooters bringing a 1950s cool factor to the familiar motodop ride. Alongside visits to Angkor Wat and the local countryside, Siem Reap’s Vespa Tours offers an After Dark Foodie Tour. The tour runs nightly from 6pm, starting with a cocktail and going on to local market stalls and secret picnic spots, where customers can sample anything from dragon fruit to fried crickets. There’s no cooking involved, but then again, preparing tarantula legs is probably best left to the experts.
The tour is also good for those interested in the drinking as much as the dining: free-flow alcohol is included in the price alongside the unlimited food. This includes Cambodian rice wine, a potent liquor brewed with fruits and herbs, sometimes believed to be medicinal. But don’t worry about drunkenly crashing your Vespa – you’ll be driven around by an experienced tour driver for the duration of the tour.
Siem Reap Food Tours
For a more sober, early bird view of Cambodian street cuisine, Siem Reap Food Tours runs a morning tour starting at 8am. Prahok – the notoriously pungent fish paste nicknamed ‘Cambodian cheese’ – is a particular passion of theirs, and they promise to introduce the intimidating ferment to curious new tongues.
The tour moves from the busy markets of Siem Reap centre up through the gorgeous countryside near Angkor Wat, to sample the rural breakfast cuisine num banh chok. The ubiquitous curried noodle is quite literally a legendary dish, and a Siem Reap Food Tour guide will fill you in on the popular local folktale that stars the humble breakfast. Their evening tour, which starts at 5pm, features Cambodian barbecue frogs stuffed with a local curry paste called kroeung, and likely a few local beers.
Sojourn Boutique Villas
Surrounded by rice paddies, stilted houses and shady forest, Sojourn Boutique Villas seems like it’s in the heart of a Cambodian rural idyll despite being only a 10 minute drive out of Siem Reap centre. The boutique hotel’s kitchen is an airy, spacious pavilion. Languidly floating cotton-like wisps blow in from the surrounding fields.
Before we start cooking, we pay a visit to a house down the road to be shown traditional cooking instruments in their authentic kitchen setting. A tour of the herb garden follows, and we’re given a few leaves to taste, with an explanation of their health benefits.
Back in the kitchen, we go from perfecting the spring roll and fish amok, all the way to frying our own sweet, crispy pancakes using a traditional iron press. At the end of the course, we enjoy our meal under a domed platform raised above a lily pond. It doesn’t get much more serene than this.