Getting My Culinary Groove on in Siem Reap Cambodia
Iron Chef, Top Chef, Chopped: I watch them all. And since I love to cook and eat in equal measure, I take a cooking class in every country I visit. After one taste of Cambodia’s national dish, amok (fish cooked with lemongrass and coconut milk, baked in a banana leaf) I was hooked. Even Gordon Ramsey flew in on a helicopter just to sample it in a restaurant in Siem Reap.
Cambodian food is rarely found in the USA, and the few restaurants that do serve it pale in comparison to the real thing. Cambodian cuisine is similar to Thai and Vietnamese, but the emphasis is on fresh spices and herbs rather than dried or ground ones. Le Tigre du Papier, in Siem Reap Cambodia, is a cooking school located on the top floor of a restaurant of the same name, and was highly recommended in Lonely Planet and from other travelers. I signed up for a class, and for what I hoped would be an exotic culinary adventure.
As I waited in the restaurant for the class to begin I surveyed the other students, scoped out the competition and tried to predict which one might be awarded the coveted title of “Iron Chef.” A beautiful young Cambodian girl sat me down next to an Australian couple and told us to choose what we wanted to prepare from the menu. Each person could make an appetizer and a main dish.
We followed our teacher, Channan, to the local food market. Tables were piled high with colorful, beautifully arranged produce, and she carefully explained each one. As we snaked our way through narrow lanes, women were yelling and hawking their goods, as is common in markets in Asia. It was loud and raucous. I was concentrating on not sliding on the slippery ground, which was awash with chicken innards and scraps of fish, and didn’t hear much of what she was saying. By the time we got back to the cooking school and climbed up a steep, narrow staircase meant for people of Asian proportions, the ingredients for each dish had been neatly set out, with a cutting board, vegetable shredder and knives for each “chef/contestant”.
The challenge was to complete two dishes and a communal dessert in one hour. That meant chopping, shredding, cooking and plating. It was already almost 11:30. The class had started at 10 am, and at 1pm the next group of students would arrive.
Bowls with water and lemons were set out, so we could wash our hands. We were shown two burners and a communal wooden mortar and pestle. Our teacher had one assistant, Ravy, and as we finished one chore, she quickly cleared everything away for the next.
As we snaked our way through narrow lanes, women were yelling and hawking their goods, as is common in markets in Asia. It was loud and raucous. I was concentrating on not sliding on the slippery ground, which was awash with chicken innards and scraps of fish.
A hitch in the proceedings occurred with the arrival of two British guys. They had their own teacher, and had just come from their market visit. While we were still fiddling with the grating of our veggies, I noticed that they had taken over the two single-burner hot plates and were already finished with their first course. We stepped up the pace, realizing that this was serious business. Enough with the selfies with silly grins in our culinary uniforms- THE RACE WAS ON! Watching Iron Chef on TV doesn’t even begin to communicate the stress involved in fighting a cooking deadline.
I was making green mango salad and amok. My mango and carrots were nicely shredded, thanks to a simple Cambodian contraption that is a mix between a rotating vegetable peeler and a crinkle cut potato cutter. I slyly peeked at what was going on with the nem makers (fresh spring rolls made from rice noodle pancakes, stuffed with shrimp, carrots, bean sprouts and cucumbers).
“Dee Dee, time to start your amok”, called my teacher, bringing me back from my reveries. I went back to finely chopping leaves, turmeric root, lemongrass and shallots. Trish was making the same dish, but she was way ahead of me with the chopping. It might have had something to do with the fact that I was constantly checking out what the competition was up to.
It was already 12:30 pm and I was not nearly ready. “Dee Dee must go faster, catch up”. Trish and I took turns pounding the paste for the amok in the huge wooden mortar. By now, the Brits had already finished their dishes and were headed downstairs with their creations. Channan seemed upset and she muttered something to the assistant, who was constantly smiling to show off her new set of teeth. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I could tell she was angry that the other teacher had barged in and pushed her students ahead of us, causing us to be late.
Finished, we plated our dishes and went downstairs to devour our feast. In this country famous for official corruption, where is a judge you can bribe when you really need one? Neither Bobby Flay nor Chairman Kaga was there to tell us who had won the competition. But who cares about being crowned the Iron Chef anyway!? My satisfied taste buds told me we were all winners.
Top image: Cooking in Siem Reap Cambodia