One of the most rewarding ways of exploring another culture is through tasting their food; the different textures, flavours, uses of abundant or scarce ingredients, ingredients you’ve never heard of, and the way that herbs and spices you know are used in new and surprising ways to create new and surprising tastes. The different ingredients can tell you much about a country’s current economic status, geographical blessings and constraints, and even about its history. In Cambodia’s case, the plentiful use of fish speaks of the vast importance of the Tonle Sap to each Cambodian’s daily survival and the wide variety of dishes are a living history book of Cambodia’s past, as influences from China, Vietnam, Thailand and India all leave their own eternal and delicious marks on our palates.
Taking it a step further, learning how to recreate local dishes is also one of the most wonderful souvenirs you can take home with you. Souvenirs are one of those strange things that seem like such a great idea at the time, yet under the pale sun of home are suddenly revealed for the rubbish they really are, best shoved in the back of a wardrobe somewhere. Maybe it’s a mild form of sunstroke that prompts us to buy those tacky prints, the ghastly pants, the scarf that falls apart at a breeze, or the bit of cheap and crappy looking statuary of some random bloke you can’t remember. It might be Buddha, but it could be that other guy too, what’s his name again?
A cooking class can fix all that. Not only is it an entertaining and illuminating morning or afternoon, but you subsequently get to favour your friends with the delicious and exotic flavours and, of course, once you start to learn a few dishes, an irresistible world opens up to a whole lot more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
To say that Siem Reap has an abundance of cooking classes is a bit like saying it sometimes rains in England. There are loads, but we highlight a couple here that we like for various reasons.
The Tigre de Papier is one of the longest running restaurants on Pub Street, a testament to its straightforward style and reliability, and its school is just as highly rated. One of the best elements, for those who might not be fans of fish amok which tends to be the staple dish for many classes, is that you can choose yourself which dish you want to prepare. At $12 per person, the class is a bargain too.
The RiverGarden’s class is recommended for the opportunity to cook dishes at one of Siem Reap’s quietly fantastic restaurants in their lovely, jungley garden. Their “Cooks in tuks-tuks” tour runs at $25 per person ($35 if only one), and though pricey, we think the quirkiness and lovely setting more than make up for that. Moreover, they are now starting to run guided street food tours, for the culinarily brave of heart, and stomach.
Way on the other side of town, Sojourn takes advantage of its gorgeous location in the middle of the countryside to bring you on a special tour of a neighbouring village to show you the different herbs and vegetables used as they are grown and introduce you to Cambodian customs and beliefs surrounding food. You then go back to the bamboo kitchen to start the real cooking, before enjoying the fruits of your labour in their romantic lotus pond stilted-pavilion. The classes are $22 for a half-day class and $35 for a full-day, with a maximum of six students per class.
For something a little more different, the Hariharalaya Retreat Centre a little bit outside of town offers classes that combine healthy, vegetarian recipes, yoga and the chance to chill out in a lush countryside retreat. For only $20, the focus is on Cambodian food and ingredients but in a nod to the Centre’s core objective, Indian recipes are also explored, including chutneys, dips and desserts. Hariharalaya also has accommodation if you’re looking to stretch out the relaxation.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 6th August, 2014.