There's no better way to comprehend a cuisine than to learn how to cook it for yourself. To that end, we signed up for a Cambodian cooking course with Smoking Pot Restaurant (yes, clever naming) to learn some of the tricks and ingredients behind the Cambodian dishes we had been eating. Along the way, we also picked up some more Cambodian history.
The day starts at the market, where we seek out ingredients for the cooking adventures ahead. Much of the standard Southeast Asian market fare is well-represented – piles of fresh herbs, pots of fragrant rotting fish, and a meat section reminiscent of advanced biology class. Battambang's market even offers a few visually spectacular twists, including eviscerated chickens with yolk-filled uteri and grilled, peppered eggs on a skewer.
Ingredients in hand, we return to the restaurant to get to work.
Battambang Cooking Course: Chopping and Chatting
With six students and one teacher, it’s an intimate and hands-on session. We get busy chopping chilis and lemon grass, swapping travel stories between strokes. In a “it's a small world” lesson, we find out that two of our classmates are the authors of a blog that convinced us not to take the bus from Vientiane, Laos to Vinh, Vietnam a few weeks earlier.
Our instructor (also the owner of Smoking Pot) fields our questions about life in Cambodia. He's remarkably frank, sharing stories from life in Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border in the 1980s to tales of Cambodia's current transitional travails. AIDS is a growing problem in Cambodia. People’s denial of the existence of the disease and refusal to get tested only make the problem worse. He tells stories of infected sex tourists who come to Cambodia and pass the disease knowingly to others, including a close friend of his who recently died. A sad byproduct of tourism.
After covering NGOs, marriage, life in a Thai refugee camp (similar story to our motorbike driver), government corruption and cooking, we resume the pounding of chili peppers, galangal (ginger), lemongrass, garlic and kaffir lime leaves into a smooth and spicy amok (traditional Khmer fish curry cooked in coconut milk) curry paste with our mortars and pestles. Freshly grated coconut turns to coconut cream with a soft squeeze of our hands and blends nicely with the freshly made aromatic paste sizzling away in iron pans atop kerosene tanks.
With our instructor's guidance, we all produce more-than-worthy amoks – in appearance, smell and taste. We cook two more dishes – a spicy curry-based stir-fry and a sour soup, but the amok proves the crowd-pleaser and among some of the best we’d tasted during our Cambodian travels.
Video – Battambang Market and Cambodian Cooking Class
Smoking Pot Cambodian Cooking Course
- Where: Smoking Pot Restaurant, Battambang, Cambodia
- Cost: $8 includes market visit, cooking and eating three dishes, cookbook with Cambodian and Thai recipes
- Our opinion: Highly recommended. One of the best values around for hands-on cooking instruction, interesting dishes, large quantities of food and a bonus insight into Cambodia.