Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Siem Reap with Gusto (Part 1)

I went to Siem Reap with a cursory (read: zero) knowledge of things Khmer. I was armed with a loose itinerary that allowed plenty of room for randomness and spontaneity.

I booked myself a fine accommodation at Heritage Suites, which offered tasteful décor, impeccable cuisine, and a cozy room with soft, plushy bed. With only 26 rooms and suites, it looked more like the vacation home of a rich, elegant aunt than a resort, its cluster of bungalows discretely tucked behind gardens near the pool.

I was picked up from the airport by what looked like a turn-of-the-century Mercedes Benz. Fifteen minutes later, I reached my destination. It was a little past midnight owing to the delayed flight. The restaurant was closed. So was room service. So I helped myself to the honey Dijon mustard Kettle Chips from the mini-bar.



The following day, I more than made up for the lack of dinner by attending a cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier, which I read about on Tripadvisor. It was on Pub Street and, during the tuk-tuk ride from Heritage, I got a chance to set my bearings straight. My hotel is a two-minute walk to Siem Reap River where locals went to fish even at noon. The city was quiet on a Friday, devoid of the ruckus that I had come to expect in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.

I was equally surprised at how well the people spoke English. They could carry a conversation and were surprisingly willing to do so. Even tuktuk drivers can easily follow directions. It’s also not uncommon to hear a smattering of French. 

At Le Tigre, I chose to prepare fried spring rolls, amok chicken, pumpkin soup and fried noodles. For dessert, I went for sticky rice with mango.

Before the actual cooking, I was given a tour of the Old Market. Tables and shelves were crammed with spices in rich colors like crimson, ochre and green. Most of the fruits and vegetables were familiar, such as longgan and dragonfruit. Unique was the tiniest eggplant I had ever seen. It was the size of aratiles (Jamaican cherry), and very easy to miss if you don’t have a local showing you around.

I was the only student at Le Tigre that day so I had Chef Sam Ann’s full attention. Everything we needed had been laid out on the table. The knives, chopping board and vegetable peeler were all wrapped in cling film. So were the ingredients – carrots, yam, sweet potato and meat like chicken and pork. Sam Ann would show me how to get started and leave the rest to me. It was very hands-on.  When everything was prepped (for the amok chicken, the spice mixtures had to be pounded using a mortar and pestle), we went to the kitchen to cook. It was easy cooking, mostly sautéing. We rarely used salt, perhaps because the fish sauce was salty enough. The saltiness was often laced with the sweetness of palm sugar. For the spring roll dip, I extracted the juice of a ripe tamarind by mixing a little water and pressing using the back of a spoon.

When most of the cooking was done, we went back to the dining table for plating. Chef Sam Ann taught me how to peel a tomato and fashion it into a rose. Then, using banana leaves, we formed little baskets where the food was served. This is how food is traditionally served in Siem Reap. Everything is contained in dainty banana leaf baskets.

The food I cooked was served to me as lunch and it turned out to be one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. 

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