Cambodian coconut curry

Khmer food has a gentle sweetness and soft spice to it. Like the culture in this beautiful country, it is friendly and accessible on the surface but also complex and multi-faceted. Coconut cream, fish sauce, palm sugar, and lemongrass feature prominently. Freshwater fish is often the protein of choice, freshly caught from the massive Tonle Sap lake, the lifeblood of the region around Siem Reap.

This was the first cooking class my husband joined me for and I was excited that he would be getting a hands on sense for how I'd been spending my time for much of the last few months. The class was set up as a three course meal but since we each got to choose a dish for every course, the result was a massive six course lunch. We were not complaining.

We started with fresh spring rolls. The outside wrap is made by dipping a piece of thick rice paper in water so that it is malleable and opaque. We then filled it with a delicious mixture of stir fried pork, chicken, and shrimp, seasoned with oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, salt, and pepper. This actually makes for a pretty unique spring roll – the fresh spring rolls in Vietnam are usually filled with uncooked herbs and greens, while the fried spring rolls in Thailand are predominantly rice noodles with a little bit of protein – this was the first spring roll I encountered where the filling itself was flavorful enough to be the main event in a meal.

Fresh spring rolls with a peanut and sweetened fish sauce dip

Flavorful spring roll filling with baby shrimp, pork, chicken, and onions stir fried with oyster sauce and fish sauce

Unfortunately for my husband Isaac, the other starter option was a green mango salad – since he is allergic to mango, we sort of glossed over this one. The main thing to know about green mango salad is that it is not actually unripe mango (contrary to what I had initially assumed) but instead of variety of mango that stays green. Same deal for green papaya.

Tangy green mango salad

For the main course we made the two staple dishes of Khmer cuisine (at least according to the many restaurant menus we perused around town): Fish Amok and Khmer curry. Both use a similar lemongrass-based spice blend as the core of the dish, and include roasted peanuts, an ingredient you don't typically see in curry pastes (they are usually added later into sauces). Both dishes are also dominated by the subtly sweet combination of coconut cream and palm sugar. The main difference in how you cook the two dishes is the amount of water used – amok has minimal water and includes an egg scrambled in to thicken the sauce that coats the fish. In contrast, the curry is made with more water and is closer to a soup in density and will typically have chicken, shrimp, or pork as the protein, rather than fish. There are also a number of add on spices you could put in the curry but we kept it simple and didn't tinker too much with the core of the spice blend.

Key ingredients for the spice paste at the root of many Khmer dishes

Khmer spice paste, with the color of red chili and the flavor of lemongrass

Fish amok in a clay pot, with a dash of coconut cream on top (becuase why not top everything with coconut cream?!)

Both of the desserts we made also used coconut cream and small silver tapioca pearls as their base. The first was banana in coconut cream which we made by boiling the banana with the pre-cooked tapioca pearls, water, sugar and salt and then adding in the coconut cream at the end. The result was sweet and delicious and surprisingly not especially heavy. The second dessert was made in a similar fashion, but we added in egg yolks to make the coconut cream into more of a custard and combined it with pre-cooked cubes of pumpkin. The salty sweet dessert was also very good but a bit too heavy for the increasingly hot afternoon.

Left: Banana in coconut cream with tapioca pearls. Right: Pumpkin in coconut cream with tapioca pearls and egg yolk

Our teacher was a friendly and knowledgeable transplant from the captial city of Phnom Penh and we quickly learned that she was hoping to move to the US. In a fascinating conversation, she volunteered that she was planning to move to the US to marry a man she had met online. As she explained, an American Indian man came to Cambodia about six months ago to find a wife and had met and married her friend, who has been waiting for months since the wedding for her visa to arrive. The man had also asked around to find a few other Cambodian women interested in meeting potential American husbands and he introduced his friends to the women over Skype. As she described, after a single conversation, she hit it off with one of the men and they got engaged virtually. She speaks to him multiple times a day on Skype and will hopefully meet him for the first time in a few months, when he has a tentative trip planned to Cambodia. As she articulated it, she is interested in traveling abroad and this seems like a good way to do it. It was an absolutely fascinating discussion that gave us another lens through which we could try to understand the culture and left us with more questions than answers as we ate our delicious lunch.


Additional information:
Golden Temple Hotel Cooking class
7 Makara road, or Angkor High School road , Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia.
Telephone: +855 (0)12 756 655
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