When I’m depressed I need to eat! So after visiting the “Killing Fields” and Prison S21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the two of the many places where Pol Pot interrogated, tortured and murdered anyone that he and his party, the Khmer Rouge, thought were counter revolutionary, I really needed to eat. I’d heard of a cooking school called “Smokin’ Pot” in the town of Battambang, central Cambodia. I was feeling so low that I realised that just eating wasn’t going to lift my spirits, and that getting to know how to prepare Khmer food would help lift me out of the doldrums.
Battambang on first sight looks like a city that has had the life kicked out of it. The roads are dusty and crumbling, the shop fronts and buildings have passed their prime, but once you start exploring the backstreets and alleyways that are lined with Front shops –which open up behind closed shutter doors- merchant houses, corner street kitchens, and the odd aging French house that is glamorously holding on for dear life, the feel changes completely. Early morning and the brightly cladded Monks are out collecting “Alms” where the town folk come out and give food to the monks for the day. The children play in the streets, hopefully on their way to school. Dogs amble past horse drawn carts manned by merchants who busy themselves unloading their bags of coal. Life doesn’t seem too stressful in this underperforming town. Here the bakeries sell such perfectly tasting Baguettes and Pastries, that for a moment you feel like you’re in a rustic French country town. This fantasy shatters when a scooter carrying four, loudly blows its horn while driving on the wrong side of the road.
Smokin’ Pot has been a restaurant and cooking school for the last 10 years. It sits comfortably on a corner overlooking a small but busy intersection. Sitting at tables that wrap around the corner, under a shade cloth that provides coolness from the hot sun, one can easily sit for some time watching the locals go about their day. All eating take place outside, and the mobile kitchen cooking units are wheeled in from the storeroom, taking up the whole of the shop floor.
The owner, Vannak Robie, learnt to cook from his family and together they now run what was the first of the cooking schools in town. Vannak is the perfect host. Speaking English with a strong a Cambodian accent, he constantly tells jokes making the kitchen an easy place to be.
We head off to the market to buy the ingredients needed for the 3 courses that we’ll be cooking throughout the morning. Markets in Cambodia are what shopping malls are to the West, except that they are much more alive. From the moment you enter into the labyrinth of stalls your senses go into overdrive. People rush past carrying their goods to a stall. Everybody shouts at each other trying to be heard above the din. The colours of the many different fruit, spices and vegetables are truly psychedelic. The mixture of the many aromas are not for the faint hearted. While the spices tickle the nostrils, smells of raw fish, poultry and meat can turn the stomach. “Block your noses now ladies, we can’t have you being sick before you’ve eaten,” Vannak cheerfully advices. He negotiates his way through the market explaining all to us as he makes his way. Vannak believes as many locals as possible should benefit from his business, so when buying his ingredients he buys from different suppliers each day. “Come on madam,” he says to the woman grating fresh coconut for us, “only the freshest for my very special customers. We must keep them happy so they tell their friends about us.” The “Snake head” fish that we buy is still alive and flapping. I can’t immediately see why it’s so named but I soon find out. Instead of slitting the fish, the seller beats it to death which flattens its head- resembling the head of a snake. “Scary name, ugly fish, but very tasty,” quips Vannak.
By the end of the adventure the 5 culinary scholars; myself, two French university students on a summer break, and a young English couple- seasoned travellers, are laden with bags containing all that will be needed to turn us into more confidant cooks; bean sprouts, eggplant, ginger, mushrooms, shallots, tamarind, tofu, chicken on the bone, beef strips, rice and more.
Throughout the journey through the market I realise that my mood has been lifting.
Khmer food is similar to Thai food except that Thai food has more curry dishes, and they use more of the pungent fish sauce, whereas the Cambodians have more of a liking for Soy sauce and salt. Also, more peanuts are used in Khmer food, especially salads. Vietnamese food differs the most as it’s more broth based and the blandest of the three. Besides the celebrated spring roll, the most popular Vietnamese dish is Cao Lau – a thick rice-noodle based soup that is very watery and needs to be eaten with both chopsticks and a spoon. Throughout SE Asia, braaied spiders and grasshoppers are snacked on regularly; often I’ve heard a crunchy sound, only to witness a half bitten spider about to be swallowed.
Back in the kitchen at Smokin Pot, I realise within the first 10 minutes of Vannak talking to us that there isn’t much I know about cooking. Like the fact that milk can be used for more than with just cornflakes or coffee. I learn how to peel a garlic clove properly and how cutting a piece of beef a certain way affects the tenderness, and importantly that preparing an exotic meal isn’t that daunting as previously imagined.
The morning spent at “Smokin’ Pot” we learnt how to prepare’ “Fish Amok” using lemon grass, chilli and a coconut milk made from freshly grated coconut wrapped in a cheesecloth and soaked in water.
“Beef Lac Loc” stir fried beef, with oyster sauce on a bed of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. The perfect starter to enjoy in the midday heat while quenching your thirst with a local beer.
And “Khmer Spicy Chicken Soup” a watery broth with lime, lemon grass, chilli and ginger. A dish that leaves your tastes screaming out for more.
4 hours and 8 US dollars later I walked out of “Smokin’ Pot.” Cook book in hand, depression replaced with a new found confidence. I was now impatient to head home to invite my friends over and impress them with my new found culinary skills.
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