Cooking classes are one of my favorite adventures when we travel. Food is such an important part of every culture, and there’s no better way to understand traditional dishes than to make them with your own hands.
We booked a lesson with Paper Tiger, located on Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street. They were the first in the area to offer cooking classes, and their knowledgeable chefs have been sharing Cambodian food and culture with people for nearly 20 years.
We had a menu of selections for every course, and among the five of us, we made nearly every dish.
Fresh spring rolls, deep-fried spring rolls, or green mango salad were the options for the first course. Entree choices featured chicken curry, deep-fried chicken with bok choy, stir-fried beef lok lak, or Cambodia’s most famous dish, amok, a slightly sweet coconut milk-based curry with a choice of fish, chicken, or tofu.
Everyone could agree on one thing: mango sticky rice for dessert. But first we had to shop for ingredients.
Paper Tiger is located a block away from Psar Chaa, the old market of Siem Reap. As Lonely Planet explains it, “Psar Chaa is well stocked with anything you may want, and lots that you don’t.” When it comes to fresh ingredients, however, there’s no better place to find everything in one location.
Our instructor, Sopheap, began by introducing us to the many prepared items available in the market, including powdered curries. “But before you get too excited,” she smiled, “you’ll be making your curries from scratch today.”
We moved through the colorful market marveling at the exotic items for sale, including fruits we’d never seen before.
Sopheap explained that fruit is so important in Cambodia that some of them are referred to as if they were royalty: durian is the “king,” mangosteen is the “queen,” milk fruit (or star apple) is the “princess,” and sapodilla is the “prince.”
After the fruit stalls, we explored the section of the market with prepared and dried foods, then we perused the proteins.
In addition to fresh foods and ingredients, the market also featured a number of stalls selling cooked meals as well as souvenirs.
Once we’d gathered our ingredients, we followed Sopheap back across the street to the second-floor cooking classroom at Paper Tiger.
Each of us was given a bright orange chef’s hat and apron, which was particularly exciting for Mike, since orange is his favorite color.
We set to work peeling, chopping, shredding, and dicing the vegetables for our spring rolls and mango salads, along with mise en place for our entrees.
The main course was both a cooking lesson and insight into Cambodian culture. Essentially the national dish of Cambodia, amok is made with hand-ground curry paste and always served in a banana leaf bowl. Subtle flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime combine with the umami flavors of fish sauce and the earthiness of turmeric, along with galangal (a rhizome from the ginger family), palm sugar, garlic, and the heat of as many chilies as you dare to add. Our amok also featured beautiful, creamy white oyster mushrooms.
After we ground our curries, it was time to move to the stove.
Sopheap taught us to heat the coconut oil in a pan before adding our curry paste, followed by coconut milk, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Chicken was next, giving it plenty of time to cook through, then we added our vegetables based on how long each needed to simmer. Thicker items such as carrots went in first and more tender ingredients like diced green beans hit the skillet later.
In a separate pan, we sauteed shrimp with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and a bit of oil to prepare them to go inside spring rolls and atop green mango salad.
A Cambodian dish is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, Sopheap explained. Our final lesson of the day was making flower garnishes from carrots and sweet red peppers to adorn our culinary creations.
A lovely lesson from a gracious instructor and a beautiful, bountiful outcome. In fact, there was so much food, Mike and I ate our leftovers for two additional meals.
Despite the awe-inspiring beauty of sites like Angkor Wat, it’s been said that the most beautiful thing in Cambodia isn’t the country — it’s the people. And after a day learning from Sopheap, we would agree.