Regular readers might have noticed that I tend to take a cooking class in almost every destination I visit; for me there’s now better way get under the skin of a country than to find out about the food.
Nowhere does this thrill me more than in South-East Asia, where a morning spent at the market and an afternoon (let’s face it, sweltering) in the kitchen adds a different dimension to the destination.
Whilst in Siem Reap I took a class at the renowned, locally-owned Tigre de Papier cooking school, and came away with a new sense of respect for Cambodian cuisine – and a much better handle on how to prepare one of my favourite South-East Asian desserts, Mango and Sticky rice…
The first time I ever travelled to South-East Asia was back in 2005, before I let go of the idea that travel had to be pre-planned, and one of the many hotels I pre-booked for my trip was a little guesthouse owned by Le Tigre de Papier cooking school in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I was struck by how incredibly helpful and patient they were with all my questions and vowed to make time to take one of their cookery classes. But as this was a typically short first visit to Siem Reap (most tourists allow 2-3 days for the town and the temples and only after arriving realise that this is woefully inadequate) I spent most of my time at Angkor Wat and missed out on the class altogether.
So on my recent extended visit to Cambodia I knew that getting into the kitchen with the local ladies would be top of my to do list, and booked one of Tigre de Papier’s day-long Cambodian cooking experiences.
My Cambodian cooking class is all about creating a traditional Khmer feast, beginning with a shopping trip to the local market for the raw ingredients we will use in our cooking, and ending with a sit-down lunch where we indulge in all of the dishes we’ve made and share them with the group.
One of the best things about the being shown around the market by a local cook is that they’ll help you chat to the stallholders, finding out details you couldn’t usually discover about their lives and their work – like what hour of the morning they begin or how long they’ve been working at the market.
Discovering little facts about the fresh produce they’re shelling, selling, cleaning, cutting, and cooking is a unique experience and during my time in South-East Asia I continually sought out foodie and tours and discovered sites like Withlocals.com which are a great way to connect with local people, eat traditionally prepared dishes and get under the skin of the destination.
In Vietnam it was all about Pho – the traditional soup which I still love to this day, and another memorable highlight of the same trip was a similar day out in Seoul where my guide helped me identify restaurants which still served dog, while in The Philippines I went to the local wet market where you can choose your own fish and have it cooked, traditional ‘dampa style’ by a cooking station.
Back at Siem Reap’s Old Market we peruse everything from pig’s heads to pomelo, ticking items like Tonle Sap lake fish and spices off our shopping list, then we take the short walk back to the kitchen which is tucked away in one of the town’s myriad of alleyways to spend the next few hours cooking, under the supervision of two chatty Khmer cooks.
Our group is given a menu of different dishes to choose from, and together we set about making a selection of Cambodia specialties; a starter, main course and dessert each, including ‘Amok’ a sort of curry crossed with a savoury soufflé that features heavily on Cambodian dinner tables.
While we learn how to cook the dishes themselves the local ladies also demonstrate their knife dexterity by showing us how to make little bird garnishes out of carrots using just a few choice cuts.
This is one of the most in-depth and hands-on cooking classes I’ve ever tried in South-East Asia – there’s nowhere to hide and the Khmer ladies give you as much guidance as you need but each dish is yours and yours alone so you are under pressure to prepare it right as everyone will be eating it at the end of class.
The dish I’m most excited to make is mango and sticky rice and as soon as I see it on the list of options I virtually elbow the other participants out of the way to make sure it’s on my to do list. Happily it turns out beautifully – and I’m given a great suggestion of how to plate it to perfection.
There’s a huge amount of food to tuck into by the end of the afternoon and we are invited to call our local friends to come join us and share the feast. After eating we’re also given a little certificate to commemorate our new-found knowledge of Cambodian cuisine and we all pose with the teacher, glad to have passed with flying colours.
You can take a Cambodian cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier daily starting at 10am and 1pm in English and 5pm in English and French.
You can book in advance if you have a busy schedule in Siem Reap or take your chances and pop in the day before or on the day and see if they have space.
The class costs $14 which includes the meal consisting of all the dishes made by the group at the end of the 3 hours, making it excellent value.
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