Adventure Eating in Asia: A Cambodian Cooking Class
By Erin Roberts
When you think of adventure travel, I think it's common for thoughts to drift toward following wandering whims to see picturesque faraway places and testing your nerves with extreme sports like rock climbing or canyoneering. Yes, those things definitely fall into the adventure travel category, but what about adventure eating?
When traveling internationally, sampling local cuisine is just as important to adventure travel as getting off the beaten tourist track and experiencing uncharted and spontaneous exploration. I recently visited Cambodia, and before coming to this country, I wasn't too sure what to expect as far as traditional eats. Of course, like all of Southeast Asia, I imagined rice was a popular meal component and street food stalls with noodle and fried dishes were plentiful on city streets, but besides those hunches I was curious if there were any definitive flavors of Cambodian dishes as there are in the more widely culinary known neighboring countries of Thailand and Vietnam.
A three-hour cooking class in Battambang, Cambodia helped fill in the blanks for me. In summary, Cambodian food is absolutely out-of-this-world tasty and below is a breakdown of a few delicious dishes I prepared during the class, but first, a not-so appetizing but definitely culturally eye-opening trip to the local market to purchase the ingredients.
Once we were back to the kitchen with all of our ingredients, it was time to get started preparing the meals.
First up on the cooking list was Fish Amok, steamed river fish smothered in a rich curry sauce thickened with creamy coconut milk and balanced by the light, refreshing taste of fresh-ground lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, the two standout star flavors of the marinade.
Using a mortar and pestle, we ground our own paste for the base of the marinade with our fresh, finely chopped ingredients - sun-dried paprika, galangal root (ginger), finger root (Chinese ginger), turmeric root, garlic, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf - and mixed in a spoonful of shrimp paste, a common flavorful additive to a Cambodian-style sauce.
In a small bowl, we mixed the paste with just enough coconut milk to create a thick sauce and then combined with bite-sized pieces of chopped Snake Fish, a popular river fish. In Cambodia and other Southeastern Asian countries, banana trees grow like weeds, and because it is such a plentiful tree, the leaf is often used as a multipurpose material for cooking or packaging food. We folded a banana leaf into a small bowl shape to create a container for our marinating fish before placing into a steamer to cook.
After the fish steamed for about an hour, we dropped a dollop of coconut cream, thickened with cornstarch, on top of the fish and added a garnish of fresh dill and a slice of raw paprika.
Beef Lok Lak
Lok Lak is a Cambodian specialty and is my personal favorite of the food I tried in this country. Its small cubes of beef soaked and stir-fried in a peppery marinade and served on a bed of lettuce with a few tomato slices, a side of white rice, a fried egg and a pepper lime dipping sauce.
The marinade is basic including soy sauce, oyster sauce, ketchup, medium chili sauce, chicken stock powder, garlic and black pepper. The southeastern region of Cambodia, particularly the city of Kampot, is renowned for pepper farms, so the pepper along with the citrus-y bite of the tart lime in the dipping sauce hold the bulk of the flavor you taste with the tender pieces of beef.
Pork Spring Rolls
Spring rolls are a staple in all Southeast Asian countries, but each region tends to prepare them a bit differently. In the class, we combined minced pork with shredded raw taro and carrot, chopped spring onion as well as black pepper, salt and sugar for flavor. Then, we placed the filling at the end of a six-square-inch rice paper sheet and practiced the true art of rolling spring rolls.
The freshly rolled spring rolls are then pan fried at medium heat in about 1 liter of vegetable oil and turned continuously until golden brown.
And that concludes the savory experience of the Cambodian cooking class! If you happen to travel to Battambang, Cambodia, make sure to take the cooking class or just enjoy a meal at Nary Kitchen.