Cooking Cambodian Style

Jeff and I love Asian food. And we also like to cook. I’d say that back in our “normal life” we eat food we prepared in our own kitchen about 90% of the time. But it’s rare that we cook Asian food. We cook some curries and stirfries; we’ve made our own dumplings; and we’ve tried plenty of times to create the perfect Pad Thai. But generally when we want Asian food, we eat out. In fact, most of the 10% of eating out we do is at Asian restaurants.

For me, cooking Asian food is intimidating. Well, I’m not sure it’s the cooking so much as the shopping for ingredients. Asian food requires items that aren’t necessarily pantry basics; items that sometimes can’t be found at the regular grocery store. Now D.C. has no shortage of Asian grocery stores, and I have ventured into them, but usually I leave empty handed. The store is full of items that, to a good ol’ southern girl like me, look weird and smell even weirder. And to top it off all the writing is in Asian script and the staff rarely speaks English, so I usually don’t have any idea what the weird thing I’m looking at, smelling, and poking actually is. I once did manage to find shrimp paste, a necessary ingredient in some recipe I was trying. I swear I’ve never smelled something so bad. Apparently the dish tasted fine (according to Jeff); personally I couldn’t eat it because I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose. When it was time to move out of our D.C. apartment, it was the one jar that I didn’t recycle. While I emptied out, washed out, and recycled literally every other bottle and jar in our refrigerator, I wasn’t about to open that one.

But not wanting scary shrimp paste to permanently scar me and prevent me from making some of the dishes we love most, Jeff and I decided that we’d dive into some cooking classes while in Asia. Up first, Cambodian cooking in a half-day class at Battambang’s Smokin’ Pot.

We started out with a trip to the market, which made the Asian supermarkets in D.C. look as non-threatening as a Care Bear. We scuttled in between women deep-frying crickets and fish flopping out of buckets and wiggling toward parking lot puddles. I tried not to wonder how long the huge slabs of meat had been hanging there, and I only asked Jeff once if what I was looking at was noodles or worms. By the time we exited, we were all laden down with bags full of the ingredients we would cook—lemongrass, eggplant, chiles, garlic, chicken, fish, snake beans, and more—as well as tips on what to look for when shopping and a pretty good idea of what all the fancy packaged ingredients in the U.S. look like before they’re nicely preserved.

And then it was time to cook. Our first dish was fish amok, a curry that is probably the most popular dish in Cambodia. This wasn’t cheater-style curry; we actually began by making our own curry paste, a feat that required much chopping and then some stone mortar and pestle action.

Ingredients prepared, it was off to the stove, where we sweated (very literally) over a flame, as we mixed our homemade curry with our hand-squeezed coconut milk and our hand-chopped veggies and fish. As soon as most of the coconut milk was boiled away, we transferred our food to plates and chowed down on the best fish amok we’d had yet.

I was stuffed after cleaning my plate, but we were just beginning. Two more dishes awaited. The second was a spicy basil stirfry with beef that required us to throw ingredients into our wok at astounding speed while making sure that nothing burned. I felt very chef-like, and I must say that my dish could have made the menu at any of the Asian places we frequent.

And to end the day, we made a soup, one of my favorite kinds–a sour-spicy lemongrass chicken soup. Though normally I’d say it was too hot for soup, and though I was already stuffed, I finished it off anyhow. Delicious.

And though I’m still not sure I want shrimp paste in my refrigerator (or fish paste for that matter, which we used in our amok), I don’t feel nearly as intimidated about cooking (or shopping for) Asian food. We’ve definitely got three new dishes to add to the rotation, and I bet there’s a few more we’ll like in the cookbook they gave us at class’s end. Maybe if you’re lucky we’ll invite you over for dinner once we return home.

5 Replies to “Cooking Cambodian Style”

  1. That’s really cool! I wanted to take a cooking class when I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but didn’t have the time.

    I can relate to your difficulty in discerning Asian ingredients while you were in DC. I have a similar problem in China – finding the ingredients for “Western” food can prove troublesome.

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