Plunging into the steamy depths, noises and smells of a market in Battambang, 44-year-old Keo Navuth leads a small party of westerners through the maze of stalls at Phsar Beoung Chhouk.
He explains the uses of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, fingerroot, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and garlic that are the ingredients of Cambodia’s famed kroeung paste – the basis of the beloved dish fish amok.
Keo Navuth, better known as Toot, runs cooking classes in Battambang with his wife Noun Nary, 43.
Formerly a tour guide, he set up Nary’s Kitchen in October of last year after noticing that the foreigners he brought home after a tour were constantly fascinated by his wife’s delicious cooking.
Noun Nary learned how to cook traditional Khmer dishes from her aunt, a chef who caters wedding parties.
She says that after she mastered many dishes, she was employed as a chef for the Australian Red Cross in Phnom Penh, where she honed her skills and love for food over the next seven years.
Noun Nary says she needs her husband nearby when she’s teaching a class to assist her with translation because she doesn’t speak much English.
“I usually write down all the ingredients I need for my husband when he leads foreigners on market tours. Normally they’re very curious about all the ingredients and techniques we use,” she says.
The couple says most who sign up for a class are eager to learn how to cook dishes they’ve encountered before, so the most popular requests are fish amok, spring rolls and curries. And their guests like to have a lot fun during the classes, too, which run twice a day at 9am and again at 4pm. “Some people dance while they are grinding lemongrass and they look so happy,” Noun Nary says with a smile.
One satisfied amateur chef is freelance photographer Karine Versluis, 30, from the Netherlands. She says she’s had some experience with Asian cooking before, having attended a cooking class in Thailand.
This time she says she hopes to cook fish amok, fresh spring rolls and red chicken curry.
“Ingredients are the same as those used in Thailand, but I would like to try fish amok because I’ve never eaten it before. I have to use mushroom instead of fish, though, because I’m a vegetarian,” says Versluis.
Marta Geis, a 34-year-old social worker from Spain, was another woman happily grinding away during the three-hour class, which costs $8.
“Because I live alone, I usually eat out at restaurants or fast-food places, so this is new to me,” she says.
Clients of Nary’s Kitchen get to choose four dishes from 11 to whip up themselves and afterwards get to share their creations with one another while discussing the events of the day.
“It was very nice to go to the local market like this because I can see how people here live and work in their surroundings,” says Geis as she samples some amok.
Toot says he really wants foreigners to try Cambodian foods in his country, hoping they get a good feel for the ingredients and techniques by learning how to cook them and really appreciating the subtle flavours.
To date, around 300 people have taken classes at Nary’s Kitchen – each leaving with a full belly and a free recipe book.