Cambodian cuisine shares the strong flavors of lemongrass, tumeric, kaffir limes and galangal like its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors without the overpowering spice which admittedly erases the taste for me at times. We took a full-day Cambodian cooking class in a small village outside of Siem Reap. After meeting a local family who had lost this year’s rice crop during the summer floods, we gifted them a bag of the grains as thanks for letting us peek into their world. In an intimate group of six, we spread out in our open-air kitchen under a thatched roof to learn how to whip up six Khmer classics. They say silence is the best complement at a dinner table, and although the company was lovely (a warm and funny New Zealand lady invited me for Christmas), I think everyone was satisfyingly surprised at what they had each created and silently proud that conversation was light.
Here is how to prepare two 3-course Cambodian meals*
* ingredients read for 2 although photos show for 1 due to class setting
Lunch of Khmer Mango Salad, Fish Amok & Sticky Rice Dough Flower Balls Filled with Palm Sugar Candy
Dinner of Fresh Spring Rolls, Cambodian Chicken Curry & Nom Tong Noun
Khmer Mango Salad – This refreshing and crunchy slaw-like salad if filled with sour, green mangos, carrots, tomatoes and grilled chicken accompanied by a sweet and salty peanut vinaigrette
chicken (grilled and sliced) 250g
green mango 400g
grated carrot 100g
roasted peanuts 100g
palm sugar (can substitute brown) 2 tbsp
fish sauce 2 tbsp
salt 1 tsp
garlic 2-3 cloves
lime juice 1 tbsp
1. Peel and grate the green mango
2. Slice shallots and garlic
3. Julienne tomatoes without the seeds
4. Mix palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, shallots and salt in a bowl. Flavor to taste.
5. Toss in chicken and remaining ingredients.
Fish Amok – Known as the national dish, this curried fish swimming in strips of coconut-drenched banana leaves will have your taste buds running amok
bar fish (or any thick, sturdy white fish) 500g
a bunch of ngor leaves (or fresh spinach leaves) 200g
coconut cream 1/2 to 1 cup
vegetable oil 1-2 tbsp
chili paste 1 tbsp or your heat preference
tumeric 1 tsp
galangal (or ginger) 1 small piece
lemongrass 2 sticks
kaffir lime leaves 2
garlic 2 cloves
fish sauce 1 tbsp
shrimp paste 1/2 tsp
salt and pepper to taste
sugar 1 tbsp
bouillon cube 1
1. Slice and chop lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic and shallots individually and very fine before adding to mortar.
2. Pound with pestle for several minutes before adding tumeric, shrimp paste and chili sauce. Continue to pound until consistent paste forms.
3. Slice ngor leaves and slice fish against the grain.
4. Heat oil and add paste until smell starts to unlock. Add half of the coconut cream and bring to a boil. Add fish and the rest of the cream and bring to a simmer. Stir in ngor leaves, fish sauce, bouillon cube, sugar and salt and pepper and let simmer. Taste test and adjust with ingredients as desired.
5. Add egg to thicken and cover to steam for 20 minutes. Garnish with coconut milk and julienned chilies if desired.
Sticky Rice Flour Balls Filled with Palm Sugar Candy – The ladies told us how this simple dessert plays a role in the old wives tale adage of “caking your husband” where a fed up wife of a philandering, gambling or imbibing husband would serve her unknowing spouse these deceptive treats that are cool to the touch but steaming inside, giving him a burning reprimand for leaving her at home.
Sticky rice flour 300g
Palm sugar candy (could substitute caramels or toffee) 5-10 small pieces
Grated coconut 100g
Water 1/3 cup or more if needed for dough
1. Bring a pot of water to boil
2. Kneed rice flour with water until dough forms. Palm dough into small balls and push candy inside. Roll to seal tightly.
3. Drop dough balls into boiling water. When they float, scoop with a strainer into a bowl of cool water. If they float for a second before they sink in the cool water, they are done.
4. Serve with grated coconut on top.
Fresh Spring Rolls – This dish was the one I anticipated the most as I order it often. The simplicity of the fresh ingredients with the complexity of the flavors did not disappoint.
6 rice paper sheets
Vermicelli noodles cooked
Sweet basil leaves
Sliced chicken breast (optional – could use shrimp or avocado)
1. Dip the rice paper sheet on a plate of water to coat and transfer to working flat surface. Add a small amount of desired ingredients in a stack on the bottom of the sheet (which will have become malleable) and roll up. Serve with dipping sauce.
Ingredients for dipping sauce:
Fish sauce 3 tbsp
Palm sugar 2 tbsp
Crushed peanuts 2 tbsp
Grated carrots 2 tbsp
Lime juice 2 tbsp
Chopped garlic 1 tsp
Chopped shallots 1 tsp
1. Chop garlic and shallots. Add palm sugar to hot pan until it boils. Do not let it burn. Add fish sauce and remaining ingredients until heated through. Adjust to taste if desired.
Cambodian Chicken Curry – Favorite dish of the day. Curry is one of, if not, my favorite spices, and it is incorporated perfectly alongside lemongrass, tumeric, coconut cream, lime zest and gingery galangal for a heady smell and heavenly taste.
Skinless boneless chicken breast 500g
1 medium onion
1 medium eggplant
1 white sweet potato
Cauliflower 2 stalks
Lemongrass sticks 2
Garlic 2-3 tbsp
Shallots 2-3 tbsp
Tumeric powder 1 tbsp
Kaffir lime rind 3 pieces
Curry powder 1 tbsp
Roasted peanuts 2 tbsp
Bouillon cube 1
Coconut cream 1-2 cups
Vegetable oil 1 tbsp
Sugar 2 tbsp
Fish sauce 1 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste
Water 1/2 – 1 cup
1. Finely slice lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime rinds, shallots and garlic individually and add to mortar. Pound until well mixed. Add tumeric, curry powder and peanuts to mortar and pound for several minutes until paste forms.
2. Cube eggplant, sweet potato and onion and slice cauliflower into small florets. Slice chicken into small cutlets.
3. Heat pot with oil and add curry paste and half of cream. Add chicken and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the coconut cream.
4. Add onions, cauliflower, eggplants, sweet potato and water to pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Add bouillon cube, fish sauce, sugar and salt and pepper and stir. Adjust spices to taste and desired.
5. Simmer 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serve with rice.
Nom Tong Noun – The not-too-sweet, sesame-filled batter for these fortune cookie-like creations is poured onto a small pancake griddle and then molded into an origami flower before it hardens into papery delight. These would pair well with coffee or tea.
Rice flour 1/2 cup
Sugar 1 tbsp
Coconut cream 1/2 cup
Black sesame seeds 1 tsp
Vegetable oil 1/4 cup
1. Set aside one egg and the oil. Combine the rest of the ingredients into a batter.
2. Beat the remaining egg and mix with oil in a small dish.
3. Heat griddle and brush egg/oil mixture on one side. Close for a second to let mixture coat both sides.
4. Spoon a small amount of batter into the middle of the griddle and close softly to flatten. Flip the griddle while holding the pans slightly apart so the pancake is not destroyed.
5. Let cook until golden brown. Use a fork to fold in half with the open side facing you. Slide half of a fork into one side and roll into a flower. Press down with the bottom of the fork to set and remove onto plate to let harden.