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Envoy from the kitchen: chef puts culture on the menu


In most parts of the world, women have jumped from the kitchen and raced up the social ladder; but here in Phnom Penh – at least at Cambodian cooking classes – expat women of all generations are buying their way back to the kitchen. The morning class I attended was entirely female, from about 20 years of age to, let’s say, 70.

However, we weren’t there to revive a stereotype.

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What we were investigating was the food that fuels this captivating culture.

The Frizz restaurant offers daily classes taught by chef Hun Li Heng. The classes are either a half day (9am to 1pm, US$15) or all day (9am to 4pm, $23). I opted for the half-day class.

The starting point is at the restaurant on tourist-friendly Street 240. There were eight of us, a mix of tourists and newly arrived expats. “It is normal to get mainly women,” said Li Heng as we made our way by tuk tuk through morning traffic to a fresh food market near the Riverside.

Once there, Li Heng raced us through the market, weaving us through people, objects and stalls at high speed, stopping every now then to offer a quick-fire run-down on what we would be cooking later, including a live fish.

“This is the tiger fish,” he said, pointing to a large, black fish thrashing half-heartedly on a steel tray. “This is the fish we will use in our amok.”

The menu had been set: deep fried vegetarian spring rolls for starters and fish amok in banana leaves for the main course. Had we opted for a full-day class, a traditional dessert and salad would have been tossed in.

After gathering our ingredients at the market, it was off to the rooftop kitchen on Sothearos Boulevard opposite the Russian Embassy. The open-air kitchen had private stations that included their own wooden mortar and pestle, and gas stove with pots. (The tiger fish passed away, or at least stopped thrashing, sometime before we arrived.)

Li Heng guided us through the recipes with a quick two-step approach. First he demonstrated what to do and then told us to follow suit.

He was at his most excited when it came time to prepare fish amok, his eyes glistening when he took mortar and pestle in hand to crush the spices and condiments. “My favourite is the grinding part. It makes the people suffer in a fun way; it’s a good workout,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I can’t crush it any more’, because their arms get so tired.

Traditionally everything has to be crushed like this, so that’s the way they must do it.”

After working up a sweat with crushing and grinding, Li Heng showed us how to make a bowl out of banana leaves by pleating them together with toothpicks. The amok was then steamed in the banana-leaf pot.

“It’s just a great experience,” said classmate Eva Roitmann, 23, as she enjoyed her first attempt at fish amok.

“It’s not just cooking, it’s a cultural experience – I’m learning more about the country and the people through cooking their food. And I get to see every ingredient that goes into these traditional dishes.”

Li Heng said he loved his job because he got the chance to share his culture. “I just want to share with the world a bit of our history in food. And here, in these classes, I meet people from all over the world.”

Li Heng sent us on our way with a broad smile, and a Khmer cookbook, which included recipes ranging from loc lak, banana flower sausages, and green and red curries, to pumpkin dessert and sticky rice and mango pudding.

Reservations for cooking classes are required at least one day in advance.

They can be made online (www.cambodia-cooking-class.com) or in person at The Frizz.

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