Two weeks ago, I finally managed to step away from my many projects in Tokyo and took 10 days to visit one of the countries I have most longed for since I came to live in Japan: Cambodia. There, I was delighted by the spectacular scenery of ancient ruins engulfed by the jungle, some of the kindest people on earth and, of course, Cambodian food.
Cambodian food! Such a delicate combination of fresh, bright tastes, with the essential lemongrass to perfume traditional Amok, soups and salads. And so easy to prepare! (Provided you have access to the ingredients, hah!)
I was surprised by the fact that food is not at all spicy, unlike neighboring Thai food, and by the small quantity of rice they eat compared to Japan, where so much derives from rice. Among all the Cambodian dishes I tried, fresh spring rolls stand as my best choice, even above the banana flower salad: another great discovery during this trip.
Since a friend was staying in the area around Siem Reap city (home to Angkor Wat), I joined her directly from Tokyo at the end of her 1 month stay. Once there, we decided it was not worth the 6 hour bus trip to Phnom Penh, and made plans to visit Angkor Wat, some other historic sites around Siem Reap, and finally spend a few days in Battanbang. It was a privilege to be able to meet with so many local Cambodians, and to discover and experience local life in the countryside.
As all my friends recommended, we booked a guide to show us the ruins of Angkor Wat. Hon, our guide, did an excellent job explaining the important historical aspects surrounding the site’s construction and fall, deciphering the carvings and sculptures and answering my hundreds of questions about Cambodian culture, society and lifestyle. Being involved in Tadaku, I always keep my antenna tuned, so on our way back I asked our kind Hon whether he knew anyone who would be interested in joining Tadaku to teach Cambodian food. To my surprise, his brother-in-law, Sang, had just come back from Phnom Penh, was an experienced chef, and was a perfect candidate. A phone call later we had set up a cooking session at his home for the next day.
We met Sang at our hotel next morning at 10 am. The hotel happened to be walking distance from the old market, so we just had a stroll and took the opportunity to introduce ourselves. We were 4 participants: 3 Japanese friends and I. I was probably the only one really into cooking, but the 3 others wanted to join the market tour, discover local everyday life and see what all the exotic dishes we ate everyday were made of.
At the market, we accompanied Sang with some final shopping for fresh ingredients: fish, for the Amok, and Cambodian pastries. He showed us around, answering our questions and always keeping an eye not to lose us among the crowd. The old market in Siem Reap is like a labyrinth of small alleys packed with fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, so many of which I had never seen before! Sang was actually a great food guide, because the other Cambodian friends we asked couldn’t answer most of the questions about food (how to use this spice, how to make this dish etc.). No doubt the 16 years of cooking experience played a role here.
After the short market tour, we took a tuk-tuk and headed to his house for the cooking class. It was a pleasant ride to the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. His house was in a quiet spot, surrounded by farms and an open air sports playground for young Cambodians, who are seemingly very into volleyball.
We had arranged the previous day that the menu for the cooking class would consist of banana flower salad, fish Amok, fresh spring rolls and tapioca in coconut milk, but he surprised us with the addition of a green mango salad and another dessert, so that we could take photos for his Tadaku menu profiles. He even bought some of the pastries we saw at the market to let us try them! Sang is such a nice guy…
I was also impressed by the collection of cooking utensils Sang had in his kitchen. Most of them you wouldn’t own unless you’re either really into cooking, or are a professional cook. In the middle of the room, there was a big round table on which the 5 of us, our teacher–my 3 Japanese friends and I–prepared the meal following his instructions. All the ingredients were fresh (bought that same morning), even the coconut milk. I think it was the first time I saw not canned but fresh coconut milk. Sang did not use any MSG or fish stock powders, as is apparently very common nowadays in Cambodia. The result was the most delicious fish Amok I had during all my trip–really–and of course amazingly good spring rolls and salads.
At Sang’s home, we really felt at home. During the cooking session, some of us were taking photos, talking with his wife, or simply exploring the garden and enjoying the scenery of the neighbouring farms. Cooking Cambodian food with Sang was one of the highlights of our trip. With such a lovely host, our meal couldn’t help but be excellent.
Check Sang’s menu and book a session with him here.