One of the best and most interesting ways to evoke memories of a trip somewhere special is not through things you touch — souvenirs (though there can be a place for them, of course) — but through the things you can smell, preferably also employing your nose’s partner in a good time, your sense of taste. You can do a little something about that by attending one of the many cooking classes available in Siem Reap, where’ll you pick up the bones of two or three recipes with which to transport your senses back in time once you return. Or you can pick up one of the following cookbooks, each of which has been produced in Siem Reap — with a little, allowable, exception.
The latest to hit the (virtual) shelves is an e-book of divine vegan recipes produced by the Hariharalaya Retreat and Meditation Centre. Created by the inspirational Joel Altman, with contributions from guests and staff, the recipes in Cooking With Consciousness (2012) are rooted in the idea of producing naturally delicious food that creates harmony between the ingredients themselves and between and within the people who eat them. There’s a real international feel to the recipes offered here, but there is also a strong nod to Cambodian styles, ingredients and recipes.
Examples include spicy fried potato mash for breakfast (I’m Irish so in my view this clearly identifies the man as a genius!), a selection of tasty Khmer salads, a lively selection of dips and dressings, including easy-to-make chutneys, and main courses that include Mexican chillies, Indian dishes, an African bean stew, and good solid Cambodian staples. The offerings are rounded out with a selection of pastas, soups and some delightful desserts. Cooking With Consciousness costs $12 for the first copy.
The oldest kid on the Siem Reap cookbook block was produced by Joannes Riviere for Sala Bai, the hospitality training school that celebrated its 10-year anniversary at the end of last year and has now successfully graduated and found employment for 1,000 students. The book was produced to provide an insight into Cambodian ingredients and techniques and also to raise funds for the school. In order to achieve the second objective, you’ll need to buy the book from Sala Bai directly. This means you can also visit their wonderful restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays during term time. The menu is really special, especially the set menus, which change every two weeks — this is where you can find five-star quality and creativity at two-star prices, and really shouldn’t be missed.
The Sala Bai book, Cambodian Cooking (2005), provides a straightforward insight into the basic principles of Cambodian cooking, with an eye on which ingredients would be available to people cooking the recipes back home. It might not satisfy the puritans on that basis, but it does make the recipes very accessible. It starts off with beautiful descriptions of the core ingredients, as well as a selection of the basic recipes that form the heart of many Cambodian dishes before launching into easy to follow recipes for many of the dishes that will be familiar to those who have been in Cambodia even for only a few days. Cambodian Cooking is available in French ($24) and English ($33), and the money raised through sale of the book from Sala Bai directly supports their training programmes.
Nyum Bai is the Khmer for “Eat Rice”, the phrase used to describe all acts of eating, whether rice is involved or not; indeed many Cambodians may question whether you have actually eaten at all if rice is not involved. It is also the name of a neat little cookbook created by the Green Gecko Project, a phenomenal organisation that provides a home, education, health care and lots of love to a group of 70 former street children. I have witnessed what these kids can achieve when they put their minds, together with the courage, confidence and know-how they have gained through Green Gecko, to achieving their objectives, and they are mind-blowing.
Nyum Bai (2007) is separated into short sections covering the essential Cambodian recipes arranged according to whether the principal ingredients are vegetables, fish, pork, chicken and beef, and then of course desserts. Nyum Bai ($20) can be purchased online, or at Green Gecko’s support restaurant Green Star. At the southern extreme of Wat Bo Road, Green Star serves up a selection of Cambodian dishes in a simple, homely setting.
Way up the other end of Wat Bo Road, Marum opened its doors last November and swiftly attracted a lot of attention. The sister to the long established and very highly regarded Friends The Restaurant and Romdeng in Phnom Penh, the setting is very stylish and contemporary, and they serve a severely tantalising selection of Cambodian-inspired small plates and main dishes.
There isn’t a cookbook for Marum, yet, but in the shop just beside the restaurant you can pick up copies of The Best of Friends The Restaurant (2004), From Spiders To Waterlilies (2007), which relates to Romdeng, or From Honeybees to Pepperwood (2011), which relates to the restaurant, Makphet, in Vientiane, Laos. (Disclaimer: the editor of this post and co-founder of Travelfish.org was also the copyeditor of the first two recipe books.)
As with Sala Bai, the restaurants exist to provide training to young disadvantaged Cambodians, and also to raise funds for their other programmes. That they also provide some of the most creative and interesting food in Cambodia is an added, and wonderful, bonus. The cookbooks reflect the distinct styles of the restaurants they are written around.
The Best of Friends provides an eclectic mix of recipes drawing on influences from wide and far, though Asian and Cambodian influences are strongly present. Recipes include their famous smokey eggplant dip (perfected at Marum where it is served with Indian crackers), and tend to be pretty simple, perfect for knocking up during the week or for friends. Examples include the curried pumpkin soup with coriander, fish and potato cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, mixed greens with prawns in cumin and coriander dressing.
From Spiders To Waterlilies is, like Romdeng, more sophisticated, with more complex recipes, and also more Cambodian. The ingredients may be tougher to source once you get home (we gather you can’t get tarantulas at your local supermarket?), though simply browsing this beautiful book can often be ample to nourish the soul. It also provides a reasonably comprehensive introduction to the principal ingredients, together with recommendations for substitutes where appropriate and, like Cambodian Cooking, it also provides a rundown on the essential sauces, seasonings and aromatic pastes at the heart of Cambodian cuisine.
In 2009, From Spiders To Waterlilies was given the Best Asian Cookbook award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, and the next year this book won the Best Soft Cover Cookbook award at Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.