Learning Holiday: Cooking In Cambodia

Bite into a slice of Khmer life.

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During the years of starvation and famine under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians started eating insects like crickets, spiders, and red ants, all of which are still popular street foods. Photo: Diego Cervo/ Yay Micro/ Dinodia

Sitting at a table around dawn with seven strangers on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday, I try to remember what possessed me to sign up for this half-day cooking class at Frizz, a Phnom Penh restaurant that serves wonderful traditional cuisine. Meanwhile, our Khmer chef Lucky-Two (born Kungkea, he followed his brother, “the original Lucky,” into the trade) chalks out the menu, no mean feat with so many students to please.

He jots down preferences and allergies. Australian tourists Simon and Beth want to prepare something really exotic while Renee, an American schoolteacher who has lived here for a year, cautions us that “foreigners can’t tolerate seafood from the polluted Mekong River”.

Amok is the national dish

The national dish amok, a preparation of steamed fish, is also made with chicken and tofu. Photo: Sergei Reboredo/ Age Fotostock/ Dinodia

The river whose shifting tides have witnessed the rise and fall of the Khmer civilisation continues to be a vital part of Cambodian life. Omitting its yield would mean writing off more than half of the local cuisine, including amok, a lip-smacking preparation of curried fish steamed in banana leaves. I panic as it strikes me; it was my quest for that particular recipe that got me out of bed this morning.

When the votes are cast, however, it appears that others were similarly charmed by the national dish. It features on the day’s menu after all, along with spring rolls, kroeung spice and herb paste, and red chicken curry. That settled, we huddle into tuk-tuks for our trip to Kandal market (Psar Kandal, in Khmer) in central Phnom Penh. It is a longish drive from Frizz, cutting across Russian Boulevard, a reduction of Confederation de la Russie, the road’s name in the ’80s when Phnom Penh was teeming with Soviet tourists.

But it’s the older French influence, rooted in Cambodia’s colonial past—it was a French colony until 1953—which continues to dominate Phnom Penh’s architectural and culinary landscape. There are French restaurants and cafés at every corner and French tourists often stay on to initiate social enterprises in this country that’s still struggling to recover from the destruction wrought by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge over 18 years.

King Norodom palace

In 1866, King Norodom built the royal palace at an auspicious site selected by astrologers, across the Mekong River. On its grounds is the Napoleon III pavilion, an early 19th-century gift from French Empress Eugenie. Photo: Plusone/ Shutterstock

In fact, our teacher acquired his cooking skills at one such enterprise called Friends Restaurant, located near Phnom Penh’s National Museum. Registered in Paris, it empowers marginalised groups by teaching them vocational skills. Between cooking at another restaurant and conducting these classes, Lucky-Two hopes to save up enough to move to America someday, he says.

We snake through narrow pathways stopping to pick up kaffir lime here and spring roll casing there. There is no order to the chaos of Kandal market and I feel like I am on a wild treasure hunt. Detergents are stocked right beside delicacies like preserved “thousand-year” duck eggs.

Kroeung spice paste

Chef Lucky-Two shows students how to make kroeung spice paste. Photo: Anjana Vaswani.

Curious about the banana leaf bundles for sale for 15 Riel/0.25 at every corner, I buy one and sink my teeth into the sticky rice parcel within. It is num kom, a delicious rice cake stuffed with sweetened coconut flakes that is a must on auspicious occasions such as Bon Om Touk (Water Festival). Lucky-Two reminds us of an interesting souvenir to take home: a bottle of prahok, fermented fish paste that is produced in the floating villages along the Mekong River and used in almost every local dish.

Every possible cut of pork—nose to tail—is laid out at stalls on either side. Further ahead are the fruits of the river, and we stop at a stall where an elderly woman is hosing down a tray of tigerfish. Smiling, Lucky-Two gestures for us to draw closer and suddenly the chaos of the market is punctured by loud shrieks as the large fish flap about inches from us. “They’re kept alive to be cut fresh,” he explains, completing his purchases and escorting us to a rooftop terrace a 10-minute drive away for our class.

Sisowath Quay is a 3-km-long boulevard along the Mekong River. Photo: Stuart Dee/ Getty Images

Sisowath Quay is a 3-km-long boulevard along the Mekong River. Photo: Stuart Dee/ Getty Images

It is a simple but organised space where we quickly split responsibilities, following Lucky-Two’s instructions and occasionally peeking into each other’s mixing bowls. Glossy recipe books are handed out so we can focus on cooking alone. We roll the taro root into the spring roll casing, fry them, and gobble them down with a delicious dipping sauce of fish paste, garlic, shallot, chillies, lemon juice, crushed peanuts, and a spoonful of palm sugar. Thus fortified, I work with three others on the tigerfish amok, taking particular pride in the little banana leaf basket I manage to weave while others prepare the curry.

Making the kroeung is easy work with measured portions of ingredients—chillies, garlic, galangal, zest of kaffir lime, stalks of lemongrass, shallot, and fresh turmeric—arranged on a tray. We pound these to a paste, stir in the fish, add coconut milk and crushed peanuts, turn this into leaf-baskets and steam them for 15 minutes. At lunchtime we settle down to enjoy the fruits of our labour, nine of us from different parts of the world brought together like the assorted ingredients of amok, strangers no more.

TIP Pick up the famous Kampot peppers, considered among the most richly flavoured peppers in the world. Ground and whole versions of these sun-dried black, white, and red peppercorns are sold for $11-18/670-1,000 per kg.

Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Biting into a slice of Khmer life”.


The Guide

Frizz Restaurant offers two courses. Both start with market trips and end with a lip-smacking traditional meal. Choose between a full-day course where you learn to prepare 4 or 5 dishes or a half-day course which allows just enough time to prepare 2 to 3 dishes, spice paste, and dipping sauce (67 OknhaChhun, Phnom Penh; contact Chef Lucky-Two at www.facebook.com/luckytwo.kungkea; full-day course 9 a.m.-4 p.m. for $23/1,405; half-day course 9 a.m.-1 p.m. for $15/915).

Traditional Khmer Cookery Classes offers 1-, 2-, or 3-day courses at Sihanoukville, a beach destination 3.5 hours southwest of Phnom Penh. It also offers vegetarian cooking classes (335 Ekareach Street; khmercookery@hotmail.com; classes from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; $23/1,405 per day).

Linna Culinary School was founded by Vong Linna four years ago to teach locals about foreign cuisine, but the chef who trained in Japan soon started Khmer cooking courses (near Phnom Penh University on Street 265; www.linnacooking.com; four-hour course costs $44/₹2,680).

La Table Khmère, a charming restaurant with red-brick walls and modern decor, offers fancier cooking classes in an absolutely sterile, air-conditioned space (Street 278; phnompenh-cooking-class.com; 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and 3-6p.m. daily; $20/1,218 for day course, $19/1,157 for afternoon course).




  • Anjana is a freelance journalist and an author of children's books. Passionate about world cultures and cuisines, she also enjoys hiking and diving with her daughters.


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