Not as well known as Thai or as trendy as Vietnamese, Cambodian cuisine deserves wider acclaim. It’s fragrant and sweet rather than fiery, and makes use of vibrantly fresh ingredients. On our trip, between gawking at some awesome (in the truest sense of the word) temples, there was time to squeeze in a cooking class where I got to use some exceptionally sharp knives and cook six classics; fresh spring rolls, mango salad, Khmer curry, Khmer amok and two sago puddings.
The recipe which I’m going to commit to posterity here is the amok, since its the one that we’re most likely to try again. The mango salad was delicious but requires green, unripe, mango which I’m not sure even our greengrocers has in stock. While the spring rolls were much less fiddly than would be expected, and did indeed resemble actual rolls, I really couldn’t be relied upon to make them unsupervised. So amok it is.
Start by making an honest-to-goodness spice paste or Kroeung. Very finely slice two sticks of lemongrass, a shallot, two cloves of garlic, a kaffir lime leaf, and an inch of ginger and mince them together using a knife. I got told off a LOT during this for nearly cutting my fingers off and in the end had the knife taken away. I maintain my fingers were never in any real danger. We also sliced a thin length of turmeric root, but I didn’t even know turmeric came in root form, let alone where you’d go about buying it, so I’d probably add a pinch of turmeric powder to the spice paste once you start to pound it in your pestle and mortar.I was trusted with a blunt instrument and happily bashed away. Once this is done, add a teaspoon of chilli paste (simply dried chillies soaked in water and minced), the edge of a teaspoon of shrimp paste, two tablespoons of chilli oil and one of plain, a tablespoon of roughly chopped peanuts and a pinch of salt and bash some more until you have a paste.
We made our amok with freshwater catfish, which came from the local market. Cambodia is big on fish, owing to the presence of the huge Tonle Sap lake which flows backwards and floods every year, creating the perfect breeding ground. This is reflected mainly in the abundant use of prahok, salted fermented fish paste which pops up in everything.
To cook, get a responsible adult to finely slice an onion and a shallot, as well as a handful of spinach leaves. Then fry the spice paste (you should get a hefty tablespoonful) in some oil. Add half a can of coconut milk, a half teaspoon of chicken bouillon powder, a half teaspoon of sugar, three splashes of fish sauce and then the onion and shallot. Simmer for five minutes, adding a ladleful of water as it starts to dry out.
Then throw in 100g of white fish and simmer for another couple of minutes until cooked through, adding a few more ladlefuls of water as required. Crack in two eggs, stir through and, when set, add the spinach leaves. Classically, this is steamed in a banana leaf basket rather than cooked over a pan, which leads to a smoother sauce but we had it that way the night before and I preferred it like this. Add a final drizzle of coconut milk and serve with steamed rice, this is a hefty portion for one and will stretch to two easily with another dish.
For dessert we made banana sago pudding and green bean sago pudding. Cooking sago pearls till translucent in a mixture of coconut milk, water and sugar resulted in something akin to rice pudding, just more exotic. I wouldn’t say no if offered again, especially when compared to the curiously solid jellies we’d had the night before (one of which had threads of egg white running through) to accompany a wedge of roasted pumpkin. The fruits on offer were much more tempting; small, sweet, bananas, spiky rambutans, dragonfruit which was worthy of the name (even in Hong Kong they was bland) and fresh coconuts full of juice.