Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Hellooo...anyone still out there?

I haven't been at this place for so long that I hardly know my way around it anymore... Well, I won't bore you with a bunch of lame excuses and only state the most exciting one: an overseas trip, first and foremost to attend the christening of my ueber cute nephew no. 2 in Germany (as aunt and godmother, I did bake a few things but sadly, no pictures), and secondly to visit Cambodia on the way back.

In preparation of our trip, I spent quite some time reading our guide book and agonizing over where to go - quite a difficult question when all you've got is a mere week to cover such an amazing country. Pretty high up on my list of priorities was taking a cooking class in traditional Khmer cuisine. Thus on a very sunny and hot morning, T and I walked towards the aptly named restaurant 'Smokin' Pot' in the laid-back country town of Battambang. None of us had ever attended a cooking class before, so we didn't really know what to expect. However, we had eaten at the restaurant the previous night so we knew that the chef's secrets were worth knowing.

The half-day course starts off with a trip to the market. Like chicks running after their hen, we follow our teacher Vannak - one would be lost without a local in this buzzing frenzy. We see all sorts of oddities like hard-boiled eggs cured in salt and ashes or little tubes filled with fermented fish paste and a whole chili. Cambodians, Vannak explains, like to eat this as a snack while traveling on the bus for example. 'Don't try this yourself', he warns us, 'we Cambodians develop a strong stomach.' Another popular snack that I've also seen in the Philippines, is hard-boiled duck eggs - or to be precise, a hard-boiled duck chick, eaten with a spoon right out of the shell, feathers and all. Needless to say, none of us is keen to try that one.

Back at the restaurant, professional equipment is already waiting for each of us: a big round chopping board, an impressive looking knife, and a pestle and mortar. Whilst Vannak explains the three dishes we're going to make, the kitchen staff washes and trims our ingredients so we won't have to work very hard.

However, Vannak does take his job seriously and from now on tells us in rapid, short commands what to do: 'Skin remove!' - that's for the ginger-like galangal. 'Chop into 3cm-pieces' - that's for the snake beans. And before we know it, we're already pounding away in our heavy-duty mortars to get a smooth spice paste for Cambodia's most famous dish: a mild curry called Amok that we make with fish and vegetables. To my great surprise, once the prep work is done, the actual cooking time is very short. After the fish curry, we also make stir-fried beef - lok lak - with salad and a dipping sauce and to finish, hot and sour soup with chicken. Unlike western cuisine, in Cambodia the soup comes as the last course thus bringing all the flavours together. And there's always room for some soup, Vannak says. However, there's no way I can finish three mains in a row - no matter how good it tastes. So I'm all the more happy when Vannak gives out small folders with a bunch of recipes from his restaurant - we will be able to recreate our Cambodian experience at home!