Sunday, June 5, 2011

Learning to Cook Khmer Cuisine, Part I: Cambodia Cooking Class/Frizz Restaurant

Today was a really great day. I woke up early partly because my body is still jet-lagged, but also because I was so excited. Before arriving in Cambodia, I looked online for restaurants in Phnom Penh that featured fish amok, which is the country's national dish. My interest was in learning about the dish and how to make it. That would require cooperation from the restaurant owner.

I hit the jackpot on the first try. Before leaving Boston, I called Frizz (, #67, Street 240, Phnom Penh, telephone +855 (0) 23-220 953), which opened as a Khmer restaurant about six years ago. One year later the owner began offering cooking classes to visitors who wanted to learn how to cook Khmer cuisine. This became the Cambodia Cooking Class (012-52 48 01

During my conversation with Mr. Kear, the current owner, I shared my interest in photographing and filming the preparation of fish amok. That's when he invited me to participate in the cooking class. I had not realized until he suggested it that Frizz offered the cooking class. To say that I was excited does not begin to describe how I felt.

After breakfast, I took a tuk tuk for the short, ten-minute ride to Frizz. Guess who was the first person there? Mr. Kear greeted me and we chatted a bit more about the project. Two couples -- one German and the other Australian -- plus another Australian woman arrived. With everyone present, our little group set out in two tuk tuks, accompanied by a guide. Our first stop was the local market, where we would be introduced to Khmer food.

After being told to watch our personal belongings with care we walked into the market, which is a densely packed, bustling place full of people, produce, humidity and strong scents.

The first set of stalls featured prepared foods. There were several meat and fish soups and stews in large pots. Their fragrance wafted through the thick air, hinting at what our class would experience as we cooked our own dishes.

Our guide shuffled us along to a produce stand where we were introduced to a number of local fruits and vegetables, such as dragonfruit and limes.

Pumpkin and tamarind are also commonly used in Khmer cooking. I like buying tamarind balls in the United States, which are available dried and can be found at pan Asian markets. Trinidad also exports a similar version that I also like.

Cambodians eat a variety of eggs, including chicken, duck, and baby duck eggs.

We smelled basil, lemongrass, and other fresh herbs before moving onto the seafood/fish section. Large tigerfish and gobies twisted and turned on a large metal table. Talk about fresh! One tried to escape and landed on the ground. Kerry, one of the Australian women in my group, valiantly tried to catch it but could not. Our guide skilfully picked it up by its tail and put the escapee back on the table. Apart from fish, prawns featured heavily in the seafood section. They were huge!

Our time at the local market was very short but was enough to provide us with a fun, hands-on introduction to the kinds of local ingredients that we would use in making our Khmer dishes. After the fish adventure, we got into our tuk tuks and headed not to Frizz but to the special rooftop, open-air classroom where our cooking class would be held.

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