Mar 06 2013
The Cambodian cooking classes advertised by Sojourn Boutique Villas and tour operator Beyond Unique Escapes both come highly recommended — so highly that I’ve managed to use my inability to choose between the two as an excuse to do neither for quite some time. So, when a visiting friend booked us onto a half-day course, I was rather relieved to find that the two are in fact one and the same, and thoroughly deserving of their reputation as one of the best on offer.
The price of $22 for a half day ($11 for children) includes pick up and transfer by tuk tuk from anywhere in Siem Reap to the rather splendid Sojourn Boutique Villas. Its location alone, deep in the Cambodian countryside, instantly sets this experience apart from other town-based cooking classes. The bumpy journey along narrow tracks between banana groves and well-kept smallholdings, dusted with deep red dirt, is a fitting introduction to a three-hour lesson.
A bottle of chilled mineral water and cold towels on arrival were very welcome in the midday heat of a January day, and the guided walk to a local village with occasional explanations of the edible and medicinal uses of native vegetation was relaxed, and mercifully short.
The real point of the walk is to meet local villagers and see a working village kitchen before embarking on the serious business of cooking in the much more sanitised surroundings of our classroom for the day, a kind of fan-cooled camp kitchen with little individual gas stoves for each participant (there’s a maximum of six), a full set of cooking utensils each, and a classy chef’s apron.
Already pleased with our fancy equipment we were further impressed when our Cambodian guide managed to remember all six of our Western names at the first attempt. Both the guide and our teacher, who also works as a chef at the hotel, speak very good English. Their cooking instructions were unfailingly clear and they also managed to laugh at most of our childish culinary jokes.
Their cooking instructions were so good — coupled with the fact that some of our ingredients had been semi-prepared before our arrival — that the plated results at the end of our class were excellent. This was no mean feat considering we were a total hotch-potch of students comprising males and females, Australian and British, an over-50, a girl of 11 and a boy of 15.
The highlight of the day was enjoying the fruits of our labour in a stilted pavilion over a small lake surrounded by rustling trees. We feasted on fresh spring rolls – with a revelation of a home-made dipping sauce, quite unlike the standard fare from the tourist restaurants – a gargantuan Khmer chicken curry with rice and expertly crafted (by us) crispy coconut pancakes with black sesame seeds. Water, soft drinks and beer were also provided.
Classes are available on mornings, afternoons or for full days. Preparation and cooking is all done on your feet so be prepared to stand for at least a couple of hours — it can be quite tiring during a long, hot afternoon. Exact details of classes and menus seem flexible so vegetarians, gluten-intolerants and diners with other dietary challenges should present few problems – just give plenty of advance notice.
If anyone is concerned at feeling slightly voyeuristic when visiting the villagers, your fears should be allayed by the knowledge that the villagers who open up their kitchens – you don’t actually go into their home, as Cambodian kitchens are usually outside – receive a bag of rice in return for the privilege. In addition, a percentage of Beyond Unique Escapes’ profits are donated to local NGO, Husk. I would also recommend learning a few phrases in Khmer – like ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’ and ‘thank you’ – just to show your appreciation.
So if you like to support responsible tourism, are looking for a relaxed, more intimate cooking class that will get you out of Siem Reap, into the countryside, and leave you feeling like you may never need to eat again, then you will probably love this course. One final tip: portions are copious as well as delicious so don’t book a table for dinner in town if you are taking the afternoon class, unless you really think you have the willpower to resist your very own Khmer culinary masterpiece.
Beyond Unique Escapes
Corner Alley West and Sivatha Blvd
Old Market Area, Siem Reap
T: (077) 562 565
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