I knew my time in Phnom Penh was winding down but there was one more thing on my 'to-do' list. I've always had a love for cooking [and eating] but never actually shelled out the money to take a course (they wanted upwards of $50 in Korea which didn't seem worth it), but all of that changed recently. On one of my first days in the city, I heard about a cooking course offered by Frizz restaurant which I added to my list of things to consider while visiting. I checked out the website and read a few reviews, for $23 it seemed like a pretty good deal, the course would start with a trip to the market followed by full instructions and hands-on work in making a 4-course meal. I didn't get a chance to participate before heading south for my adventures in Kampot but while on a boat there I met a woman who spoke highly of the course, so I added it to my must-do list for when I returned to Phnom Penh.
You can sign up for the course online but must confirm by going to the restaurant to purchase your ticket the day before the course. I was lucky in that only 7 people (6 of which only did the half day) were signed up to take the course with me so we were all able to participate and have plenty of time to talk with our chef. We gathered at the restaurant at 9 am before jumping in a pair of tuk-tuks which would take us to a nearby market. I've been to numerous markets throughout Asia but am often too shy [or nervous] to take out my camera. I hate looking like the tourist but this time, since I was obviously in a tour group I whipped that puppy out, and I'm glad I did. Portraits are one of my favorite type of travel pictures, but ones that I often don't capture as I feel like I'm invading on these people's lives, at the market however it was so chaotic that my subjects didn't have much time to notice. I caught some great pictures of both the people and goods for sale, all while listening to our guide explain some of the more unique items to us.
Once all of the necessary ingredients were purchased it was back to the tuk-tuks and on our way to the cooking school. The cooking area is located on the third floor with a nice open-air concept, providing a good view over the city as well as a nice breeze. As soon as we arrived we were given our aprons and aside from a plethora of picture taking, we were put to work. The first dish we would be making was fried spring rolls (Chaio Yor), the filling was simple consisting of mainly taro root and carrot but the sweet and sour sauce is what really made them delicious. This is definitely one of the recipes I'm going to tuck away in the back of my mind, no more store bought sweet and sour for this girl. The Sweet and Sour dipping sauce was a combination of garlic, shallots, red pepper, chilies, fish sauce, sugar, salt, lime, and peanuts and although it took a little time to prepare it was worth every minute. With a combination of the heat and my growling stomach, I kind of felt like I was going to pass out by the time our first dish was completed and ready to be enjoyed. Although fried foods aren't my first go-to these were delicious and thanks to others not enjoying them I was given four, something I might regret within a few hours, but oh well I'm on vacation, right?
Our second dish and the main course for the day was the traditional Cambodian dish, Fish Amok, a take on curry, and let me tell you, it's delicious. The base of amok is called Kroeung and is a rich blend of various ingredients and spices: kaffir lime zest, galangal (ginger), lemongrass, garlic, shallots, red chilies, turmeric, shrimp paste, palm sugar, coconut milk, peanuts, and fish sauce, I think I got them all. We, of course, chose the traditional method of preparation and used a mortar to crush our ingredients together, eventually adding cubed fish to the mix. The final step is creating your banana leaf boat which the amok is then steamed in. My art skill or lack thereof came through with shining colors as Luckytwo laughed at me and then redid the entire thing. Once you make your banana boat (or have someone else do it for you) all of the ingredients are scooped inside and put into the steamer for 25 minutes. The spring rolls calmed my hunger pangs so I wasn't quite as anxious waiting for this one to cook. I almost caught a quick nap on the couches near the window, but just as I was dozing into a food coma, Lucky two called us over, time to eat.
After the first two courses were finished it was time to say goodbye to over half the class, who had only signed up for the half-day course, suckers. It was down to me and Ana (who I coincidentally met the night before at a local movie theater, The Flicks) so we had plenty of attention. The third dish we were scheduled to make was a simple yet delicious Banana Blossom Salad (Nyom trayong jek neung Moan). I'm pretty sure I've never seen a banana flower before in my life, and not sure I'll know where to find one after leaving SE Asia, but I can tell you they're tasty. Aside from the banana flower, the salad included mixed herbs (mint, basil, fishwort, Asian coriander), steamed chicken breast, chili pepper, shallots and lime juice. The dressing was actually the same as the sweet and sour sauce we used for our spring rolls earlier that morning (chili pepper, lime, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, palm sugar, salt). Although my stomach was beginning to say no more, the freshness of the salad was easy to enjoy while listening to Luckytwo talk about his future - which deserves a sidenote.
Luckytwo aka Kungkea actually started his cooking career with training at the Friends restaurant in Phnom Penh which is a branch of the TREE alliance, a program designed to help street children by offering them skills in the kitchen. He went on from there and now works at Feel Good restaurant as well as teaching these cooking courses through the Frizz cooking school. He explained to us that one day he hopes to open his own restaurant that takes in kids off the street or from the poor countryside and teach them English alongside restaurant skills. As he was explaining this you could see the passion in his eyes and a positive outlook for the future. "Now I must work really hard but I think it is possible" he explained, this is the reason he's working two jobs almost every day of the week, with little rest. I'm glad we were able to connect on Facebook and look forward to coming back to Cambodia so I can visit his restaurant in the future. As we sat there talking he told us about short cooking videos he will make and post on his Facebook page, we told him he should make a youtube channel but he said he did not have money for that. When we explained it's completely free you should have seen the light in his eyes go off! Hopefully, he can get that sorted and soon I'll be posting a link to his page so you can help make him the next big youtube star in Cambodia.
Back to the cooking, our final dish was Sticky Rice w/ Mango, and although I was already feeling pretty full I somehow managed to polish off the entire thing, did I mention I have a sweet tooth? The dish is simple consisting only of rice, palm sugar, shredded coconut, coconut milk, and mango but oh is it delicious. We began by caramelizing the palm sugar along with some lime juice and then adding the coconut. Usually, I'm not a huge fan of shredded coconut in things but this time it was the perfect touch. After spreading it on the plate with some mango, covering it in sticky rice and drizzling more caramel on top we were ready to eat.
Any doubts I had in the beginning about the value of this class were completely answered. Not only did I eat some of the most delicious food I've had thus far in Cambodia but I learned to make it! On top of all that I met an amazing young man who has proven once again the positive attitude and charm of the people here. It's only been two weeks but I'm already making promises left and right to come back to this crazy little country, I can see how Cambodia can quickly steal your heart.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.