Learning to Cook, Khmer Style
There is a distinct smell of burning food, the fire alarm is ringing, the bottom of the pot is caked in food stuck on there for life, and there is a high chance that the microwave may catch fire. Even making toast isn’t fool-proof. That has been my life long experience with cooking. I can’t count the amount of times that somehow, something has caught fire in the microwave. And that was my back up, after a failed attempt at cooking real food.
At home, with the comforts of my ready-made meals or easy to make foods, I’m alright. I also live with my mother, so I get delicious meals almost daily without having to cook myself. But here in Cambodia, the food is foreign to me and makes me a bit nervous, to be honest. In the background, as I’m writing this, there is a song on that keeps repeating the words squashed banana. At least that’s what it sounds like, and it’s very distracting.
Despite the food being extremely unfamiliar here, I decided to take the plunge and join a cooking class for an afternoon. Located on Pub Street, it’s a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier, and for a whole three hours, I pay a measly twelve dollars. I’m told that I can pick one appetizer and one main course. Later, the five of us in my class must decide on a dessert together, as only one can be made. These were the three picks:
-Appetizer: Fresh Spring Rolls, with shrimp and vegetables
-Main Course: Vegetarian Amok(vegetables and tofu instead of meat)
-Dessert: Banana and Tapioca
The entire cooking class was a really great experience. Before cooking, we get a tour through the fresh food market across the street, filled with fruits, vegetables, live fish and dead chickens with their necks flopping around(not my favorite part of the market, that’s for sure). After learning about all of the foods that we would be using for our chosen meals, we walk to the back of the restaurant where everything is set out for us: knives, vegetable peeler, cutting board, plate of food.
One at a time, we all begin slicing and dicing our vegetables. This really isn’t so hard after all, but I soon realize that my fingers aren’t curled in, something that my dad always points out at home, saying that someday, i’ll chop off my own fingers. I quickly tuck them in and pretty soon, I’m finished all of my vegetables before everyone else is even half way done! As my uncle is a chef, I assume it just runs in the family. After chopping up the veggies and the tofu, our teacher, Nara, says that now we must “pound it.” I’m wondering what the hell that means, until she pulls out this big wooden contraption.
Veggies in the big wooden bowl, I begin pounding them into a paste with a big wooden pounder thing and actually, it’s really fun! I get to do this for about 10 to 15 minutes until my arms are sore. Soon enough, it’s time to roll the spring rolls. My cooking skills don’t last for long, because the first one is a disaster. Bits flying everywhere, the rice paper sticking to the cutting board, all the food falling out. By the fourth one, I’ve got the hang of it. Sort of.
By the end of the three hours, I’ve pounded vegetables, making a homemade paste, flipped veggies and shrimp around in a skillet as flames leap up at my hands(this is supposed to happen, for once) and have created an absolutely delicious meal of nine fresh spring rolls and tofu/veg amok.
I’ve even received a certificate to prove it. In fact, I was pretty impressed with myself at the end. And in my excitement, I forgot to take a photo of the banana tapioca dessert. Oh well. It was all delicious and it will be interesting to see if I ever decide to make it again at home.