Khmer Cooking: Same Same, Not Different

We've eaten a lot on this trip. And we've wanted to take a cooking class. It happened to work out in Cambodia, so yesterday we did just that. 

We arrived at the Le Tigre de Papier restaurant and cooking school, and were told to pick a starter and a main dish off the menu. I had figured they'd teach us a few common Khmer dishes, so I was definitely surprised to get to choose what I'd be cooking. Katie chose the papaya salad as her starter and chicken curry as her main dish, while I opted for mango salad and Somloo Mjour Krueng, a traditional Khmer spice soup. Once the other 6 people in our class chose their dishes and we all voted on one dessert to make (a pumpkin custard), we were off to the local market where we were accosted by flies and smells of chicken, meat, and fish, and by local women trying to sell fruits, veggies, and spices. Our head chef purchased some last minute goods - a pumpkin for our dessert, and some rice balls and jackfruit for us to try. 

We then headed back to the restaurant and upstairs to the cooking school where we washed our hands, and put on our aprons and hats before getting started. As we peeled and cut the vegetables for our starters we chatted with our fellow chefs - a couple from France, a Swiss couple, a girl from Perth, and a guy from Taiwan. Between all of us we were covering the gauntlet of starters - the salads Katie and I chose, fried spring rolls, fresh spring rolls, and pumpkin soup. After prepping our starters we moved on to the main course prep, more peeling and dicing, which at times proved difficult with the slightly dull knife. The main dishes included my soup, Katie's curry, fried rice, fried noodles, and chicken amok. Most of us had to make curry paste from scratch which included dicing shallots, garlic, galangal (a ginger-like root that has a slight pine scent), lime leaf, lemon grass, and fresh turmeric (which turned our fingers and everything we touch an orange-yellow color). As our head chef kept saying to each of us when we'd ask what we do next, "Same, same, not different" implying that we simply needed to essentially mince everything. Once diced, we then had to smash it with mortar and pestle until it had become a paste - definitely not easy, and Katie and I agreed this gave us an appreciation for curry made from scratch...and for food processors. 

Our head chef then worked with each of us to show us how to make our main dishes. As the outdoor heat picked up, so did the heat in the kitchen, but before we knew it, it was lunchtime. We carried our dishes down to the restaurant, and all sat together to enjoy our meals. Everyone shared so we got to try it all!

Stuffed to the brims and tired, Katie and I headed back to the market to stock up on Cambodian spices. Once again accosted with the smells of beef and chicken that had now been sitting in the heat for hours, we put our bargaining hats on and went to town getting spices, rice, and teas.

Before we knew it, we had to head back to the hotel to meet up with Mr. Sak. Mr. Sak is our favorite tuk tuk driver from our hotel - his English is good, and he's nice and fun. He was taking us to Phnom Bakheng temple, where we hiked up to watch the sunset among hundreds of Chinese tourists in what could have been a Canon commercial. Afterwards, Mr. Sak dropped us in town for dinner and drinks, and more shopping.

After eating we ventured through the night markets and came across a local artisan. We could tell by his hands that he worked hard, and he explained the process he uses to make brass statues. One statue of Ganesha took over a year to make, starting with carving the mold in wax, and ending with oxidizing the brass with rainwater before burying it for 7-8 months. Katie and I talked to him about getting a website, and found that he does ship abroad, so if anyone is interested in his amazing work please let me know and I'd be happy to put you in touch.