Cambodian cooking class

Chef Boyardork

Chef Boyardork

Even though at the ripe old age of 30 I’m still not showing signs of improvement when it comes to cooking (just last week, I burnt—no, charred—turkey bacon to a black crisp) I still keep hope alive for learning.

When I saw an ad for cooking courses in Siem Reap I figured I’d try my hand at Cambodian cuisine, and see if I fared any better.

There were several to choose from, but I went with one at Le Tigre de Papier, a restaurant on the city’s buzzy Pub Street. Instead of everyone making the same thing, each of us was handed a menu and asked to choose an appetizer and first course we wanted to make and later eat. I went with mango salad (in hopes that I might easily replicate it at home) and fish amok, because I couldn’t get enough of it while in Cambodia.

Scenes from Psar Chaa (Old Market) in Siem Reap

Scenes from Psar Chaa (Old Market) in Siem Reap

First, we headed to the market where our instructor bought our ingredients, stopping at the different produce, meat and rice stalls to explain what the different ingredients were. Sanitation standards are waaaay more lax in Cambodia so I had to keep telling myself everything would be ok when I saw heaps of fish and chicken laying exposed while flies buzzed around, and not a single person handling food with gloves. Not ONE.

So many smells...

So many smells…

We headed back to the restaurant and upstairs to an open cooking class, where we donned red aprons and chef’s hats. I looked pretty dorky in mine, don’t you think?

Next, we were given the ingredients and instructions for our appetizers. In my case, green mango, carrots, and Thai basil leaves and lots of peeling and grating, something the instructor made look effortless but had my arms sore after 15 minutes.


Our instructor, who said everything was easy. Everything was NOT easy.

After the arm workout came the ingredients for salad dressing (fish sauce, lime, soy sauce, some other good things), which we made for the table since it worked for my dish and a couple of other ones, like papaya salad, which several other people in the class were making.

Next, some of the ingredients for the amok came out and with them, more chopping and dicing. So. Much. Dicing.

I've decided I don't enjoy chopping.

I’ve decided I don’t enjoy chopping.

But the arm workouts weren’t done. We each got our own mortar and pestle, which the diced amok ingredients went into, and then a serious pounding. I was sweating and my arms were achy, and when the instructor came by she said I still needed to pound harder.

Using a mortar and pestle might as well be a new workout trend.

Using a mortar and pestle might as well be a new workout trend.

After making some edible garnishes and the banana leaf holder for my fish amok, I massaged the dressing into my salad (yup, with two hands to really get in there), sprinkled it with some salt and crushed peanuts, plated it and put it aside.

Will you look at this beaut of a salad!

Will you look at this beaut of a salad!

Then over to the oven, where I was given a pan to toss my pounded paste of amok ingredients into along with water, coconut milk, palm sugar and chopped fish. Over what felt like pretty high heat, I stirred and mixed until everything started to come together into a delicious looking, golden creamy sauce.

Now these, THESE were delicious smells!

 As we each worked on our different dishes, a giant serving of mango sticky rice was made for dessert. I can’t say I paid much attention to the process but I know it involved rice, condensed milk, diced mango bits and coconut milk.

sticky rice

The mango sticky rice had a face… made of mango, because why not

A little mound of white rice came out to go with my piping hot amok and after some quick plating and garnishes, voila! A beautiful mountain (because it easily could have fed two) of colorful, zesty, bright mango salad and a thick, chunky and absolutely delicious fish amok, just bursting with the flavors of lemongrass, chili pepper, cumin and other ingredients.


BAM! I did it,  I did it!  The final, delicious result!

I like to think my morning at Le Tigre put me one step closer to being a better cook, but the real challenge will be making this at home. Wish me luck!

Cambodia’s national culinary dish

Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine has some delicious food to offer (sorry, fried tarantulas, you guys are NOT included on that list) and my favorite was unsurprisingly their most popular, the one you can find on pretty much every menu at every restaurant in every city in the country: amok.

My favorite fish amok

My favorite fish amok at Rumduol Angkor Restaurant, after a day of temple touring.

Pretty much the national dish of Cambodia, amok is a curry made with coconut milk, peppers, carrots, ginger, basil (probably a bunch of other magical spices, too) and most commonly, either fish or chicken. It’s served with white rice and usually either comes in a banana leaf container or as I had it one time in Siem Reap, inside a coconut.

Admittedly, not the most aesthetically pleasing, but let me tell you it was goooooood! Especially scraping out the coconut meat

Amok is thick and chunky, with a great balance of sweetness from the coconut milk and hot, spicy exotic flavors from the peppers and spices. This, to me, is absolute comfort food. Even times when it was hot and muggy and I had sweat rolling down my face (so basically, every single day of my month-long stay in Cambodia), I loved ordering fish amok (which I preferred over chicken) and now that I’m back in the frozen tundra that is New York, I reeeeally wish I had a piping hot plate of it. I kind of, sort of, learned how to make it (stay tuned for that story…) and this frigid weather might just be all the motivation I need to relive this delicious bit of Cambodian comfort at home.