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Learning the fine points of Cambodian cooking

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Hun Li Heng and his Cambodian Cooking Class take the uninitiated on a

hands-on tour through the subtle flavours of Khmer cuisine 

CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Mushroom amok, the vegetarian alternative to fish amok, is one of the recipes students learn at the Cambodian Cooking Class.

SIX people wearing identical white aprons surrounded our cooking instructor at the Cambodian Cooking Class, a course offered through Frizz Restaurant.

Our instructor, Hun Li Heng, explained all the different herbs that went into a banana flower salad and passed them around for us to smell. There was broad-leafed fishwort, two types of mint and Thai basil, each with a distinct aroma and taste. Learning the proper balance of herbs is key to great Cambodian cuisine, Hun Li Heng explained.

The class highlighted the careful use of herbs and roots that give Khmer food its unique taste. Cambodian cuisine may not have the global profile that Thai or Vietnamese food enjoy, but it's certainly not from lack of flavour, sophistication or influence.

"Everybody knows Thai [food], but a lot of it comes from Cambodia," Hun Li Heng said.

Pre-dating the chili pepper

It was in the Angkorian courts at the height of the Khmer Kingdom that many of the prototypes for Southeast Asia's most popular dishes were created, according the recipe book that one receives at the end of the course.

"Thai food is like Cambodian food, not the opposite," Hun Li Heng said.

Despite may similarities between Cambodian cuisine and the food of its better-known nieghbours, there are still some important differences. Khmer recipes go back centuries - long before chili peppers were introduced in the region by the Portuguese. Consequently, Khmer food tends to be less spicy than Thai food, which thoroughly integrates the chili pepper. But the mildness of Cambodian food allows the full flavour of the ingredients to shine through.

Hun Li Heng - currently the only instructor of the Cambodian Cooking Class - is a former street kid who trained as a chef and discovered a knack for passing on what he had learned to others. In the Cambodian Cooking Class, he takes students through popular Khmer dishes from start to finish. One should be sure to attend class with an empty stomach and open mind; one has many opportunities to eat and learn.

The class meets in front of Frizz Restaurant at No 67, Street 240, in Phnom Penh, and proceeds to the Psar Kandal market, where the instructor takes participants on a tour, answering questions about which fish makes for the best amok and explaining the different Cambodian fruits and vegetables.

Everybody knows thai food, but a lot

of it comes from

cambodia.

The class then heads to a nearby rooftop where the instruction begins. With burners arranged in a half circle around Hun Li Heng, we started our first dish - fried spring rolls. Squeezing the starch out of shredded taro root - the main ingredient of our spring rolls - is as satisfying as it is messy. Participants should be prepared to get their hands dirty, as everyone leaves with yellow fingertips from peeling and mashing turmeric.

Following spring rolls, we made fish amok, banana flower salad and mango sticky rice. The course has two menus, one for even days and one for odd.

Both classes teach how to prepare four traditional Khmer dishes - an appetizer, a main, a salad and a desert - and how to best present the dishes. Our class even learned how to carve an ornamental flower out of a carrot. Hun Li Heng told the class, "If you don't cut yourself making the flower, you're an expert." By that definition, we were all "experts", despite my own very sad looking "flower".

Missing ingredients

After every dish, there's plenty of time to relax and talk with the other participants as one eats one's own culinary creations. It's an intimate and laid-back class where one has plenty of time ask questions and get to know one's fellow classmates.

Eating one's own dishes after being involved in every step and then being able to discuss the end results made it much easier to parse out the different flavours and ingredients. One could see people begin to understand the effects of each ingredient, figuring out what substitutes could be made back in their respective countries if they couldn't find say taro root or galanga. The improvement of everybody's Khmer food palate was obvious.

The one problem with the class is the recipe book, which doesn't include the recipes for banana flower salad or mango sticky rice or list possible replacements for local ingredients that are widely available outside of Cambodia. With such a wealth of information provided in class, it's unfortunate that the recipe book is so sparse.

Despite the mediocre recipe book, the Cambodian Cooking Class is destined to play a valuable role in reviving Khmer cuisine, helping it find a global audience and doing it in a relaxed, fun and informative atmosphere.

Bookings for the class can be made at cambodia-cooking-class.com or by calling 023 220 953 or 012 524 801.

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