The tuk-tuk rattled over a rough dirt road, jarring my bones, finally stopping when the road turned and seemed to disappear near a stream. The driver motioned for me to climb out. I hesitated. I had signed up to take a cooking class in the Cambodian countryside near Siem Reap, but this was not what I expected.
Behind us were modest homes, but bordering the dirt lot ahead were stone ruins, partly obscured by trees and shrubs. Nearby were rice paddies and what looked like a garden of colorful miniature temples sprouting from a pasture. A few scrawny white cattle grazed nearby.
Where was the kitchen?
“I like to tell people about the village before we cook,” a slight young woman said as she stepped into the dirt clearing. She nodded her thanks to the tuk-tuk driver, then turned to me. “Come, let’s walk. You are my only student tonight.”
A cooking class is a good way to get an intimate look at another culture, especially for a foodie like me, curious about the local ingredients and traditions at the root of a cuisine. With Khmer cooking, I was starting from scratch: Before my trip, I couldn’t think of a single traditional Cambodian dish and then realized I’d never eaten Cambodian food.
I found the class on viator.com, a site I’d used before to find activities in places I visited. The website described the locale as a rural village and said students would learn about authentic local ingredients.
My travel companion, who is not a foodie, decided she’d rather visit a museum, so I waited alone for a tuk-tuk to pick me up at our hotel. A Cambodian tuk-tuk is an open-air taxi that looks like a small stagecoach with an awning, hauled by a driver on a motorbike. It’s the most common way for tourists to get around Siem Reap.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?
The driver climbed onto his motorbike, out of earshot of my questions. We joined the stream of traffic — motorbikes, a few tuk-tuks, a few cars. Children in school uniforms bicycled at the edge of traffic, and occasionally we overtook someone leading livestock along the route.
We drove through streets lined with market stalls, their goods stacked next to the traffic — electronics, plumbing supplies, piles of squash and melons, rows of shirts hanging from pipes, racks of potato chips, cases of bottled water and soda.
Gradually the streets became less crowded, and the commerce thinned. Street surfaces grew rougher. Then we turned onto a rutted dirt road, lined by homes. There was no traffic. We passed barely a soul.
As the road dust flew up around me, I wondered what I had been thinking when I got into a tuk-tuk by myself, not knowing a word of the Cambodian language, having no clue what direction we were heading or even what road we were on. But all of this Cambodian adventure had been like that, an exotic mystery that revealed itself only gradually.
Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, draws tourists to see the ancient temples of Angkor, and I had done that over the last two days, awed by their exotic designs and elaborately carved walls.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is the largest religious monument in the world. Its centerpiece is the Temple at Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century to honor the god Vishnu, and later converted to a Buddhist temple. We walked through it and through the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, where statues of gods and demons stand on either side of the entrance and hundreds of giant faces are carved into the rock walls; Ta Prohm, sometimes called the Temple of the Jungle because of the strangler figs and other trees that grow out of the ruins (and made it the star setting of “Tomb Raider”); and Banteay Seay (or Banteay Srei), built on an unusually small scale of red sandstone that had the most elaborate and stunning carvings of any temple I saw.
Now I stood with a cooking teacher in front of the ruins of another, smaller temple miles from the Angkor Archaeological Park, the stained sandstone appearing black and gray in the late afternoon sun: Wat Athvea, a 12th century Hindu temple that was never completed.
The teacher, who I’ll call S. because I didn’t think to ask how to spell her name, said its style was similar to the main temple of Angkor Wat and was built about the same time by the same king but left unfinished. A popular theory is that it was a sort of practice run that was abandoned when its builders felt confident they could build the larger temple that would become the icon of Cambodia.
Wat Athvea, which is a few miles south of Siem Reap, was restored in the early 1970s. On the grounds are modern pagodas and an active monastery where people can obtain a water blessing or blessing bracelets.
A MONK’S BLESSING
As we turned away and walked down the road, S. told me that evening the monks would be giving a blessing for someone who was very old. Soon after that, it began, an amplified chant that crept through the neighborhood. It was atonal, usually one voice, and would continue for the duration of my cooking lesson. Later I tried to look up blessings for the very old but all I could find were blessings for the dead. Maybe, I thought, she had used “very old” as a euphemism for the dying.
In accented English, S. pointed out the rest of the neighborhood, starting with a public health clinic of which she clearly was proud, perhaps because access to healthcare, historically very poor in Cambodia’s rural areas, has improved dramatically in recent years.
The miniature temples, it turned out, were grave markers in a cemetery, sometimes called stupas or pagodas. They were different, but no more flashy than the mausoleums in a New Orleans cemetery.
We paused at a spot where two cattle grazed near the roadside. Like the other cattle I had seen in Cambodia, they were white and looked underfed, accentuated by humps on their shoulders and large folds of skin hanging from their necks. Later, I googled “Cambodia skinny white cows” and learned that many tourists are curious about why they look so underfed but I never got an answer.
We turned into the driveway of a large house, mostly hidden by its lush landscaping. S. took me into the gardens and pointed out the plants that provide the distinctive flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine: intensely fragrant kaffir lime leaves; stalks of lemongrass; turmeric, which is dried and ground into the pungent, bitter powder that is the dominant ingredient in curry powder; galangal, a ginger-like root that has a piney, citrusy flavor; Asian coriander, also known as culantro; and slok ngor, slightly bitter leaves. There were chiles too, but they do not play as big a role in Khmer cooking as they do in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
THEN WE MADE DINNER
Then she took me to the outdoor kitchen, where two cooking stations were set up, one for me and one for her. A basket of ingredients included many of the plants she had just shown me.
We would start, she said, by mixing a cocktail of rum, lemongrass syrup and lime juice. It was a sweet-sour drink like a daiquiri, which I sipped as we prepared dinner. (We also made tea with lemongrass and pandan leaves, but I was more interested in the cocktail.)
We made a salad of green mango and carrots grated into long, spaghetti-like strands and topped it with sliced chicken that had been briefly marinated in a well-seasoned dressing of lime juice, garlic and fish sauce.
The star of the lesson was fish amok, Cambodia’s signature dish. It’s a slightly sweet fish curry, thickened with coconut cream and traditionally served in a banana leaf folded into a boat shape.
We started by chopping leaves and roots — galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, garlic and shallots, then mashing them together with a mortar and pestle. We added shrimp paste, dried chile paste and turmeric, and pounded the mix into a coarse paste, dense with the flavors of Cambodia.
Following the teacher’s example, I heated a pot and added the paste, using it like a sofrito to create the base of the stew. I added coconut cream and pieces of catfish, then the bitter ngor leaves, vegetable stock, fish sauce and seasonings.
While the stew gently simmered, we made dessert — lady finger bananas sauteed in coconut cream, palm sugar and grated coconut, a little like Bananas Foster.
All the while, S. asked little about me, except where I was from, and she responded to my questions about her with such vague answers that I stopped asking. Instead we talked about the ingredients and how I could substitute alternatives more readily available in the U.S. For example, I could substitute fresh spinach for the ngor leaves.
When our preparations for dinner were complete, S. picked up the dishes at my cooking station and carried them around a corner to a table. I started to follow suit, picking up her dishes, but she motioned for me to leave them in the outdoor kitchen.
“You’re not going to eat dinner with me?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I have to clean up.”
I followed her to the table, large enough for 8-10 people, and sat down. She brought the sauteed bananas as well as the cocktail she had made but not drank, set them by my other dishes and left me alone.
A TOURIST, ALONE
By now it was dark, and the dining space was only slightly illuminated by lanterns. Somewhere nearby, the monk was still chanting in a strong voice that sounded like a musical instrument playing a series of drawn-out notes in a minor key. During the cooking lesson, I had gotten used to it, but now alone, my sight limited by the darkness, my hearing seemed more acute. I listened and ate, finishing the catfish stew first, the cold green mango salad and finally the sugary, warm bananas.
All through the cooking lesson, from the time we had stepped off the road, I had not seen anyone other than S. Yet I had learned considerably more about Khmer culture than how to create fish amok.
Then I heard the scratchy sound of something moving across gravel, and saw a tuk-tuk coming up the driveway. S. talked briefly with the driver, then waved me toward him, handing me the recipes we had just used. There was scarcely time to thank her and say farewell before we were turning back onto the rutted road.
We seemed to move more quickly on the return trip, and it wasn’t long before the roadside was again crowded with people. I heard American-style rock ‘n roll, sung in another language. We passed Pub Street, the center of Siem Reap nightlife — dance clubs, cocktail bars, karaoke clubs — a surprisingly modern development in a city where the strongest economic element is ancient temples.
In the few hours since we had passed this way, Siem Reap’s night markets had opened, offering handicrafts, souvenirs, clothing, food, beer and even massages. Some targeted tourists, others were more popular with locals. Little children played, and families gathered in circles, eating and talking.
I knew that here I could find bugs to eat — fried grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, crickets, even tarantulas, variously seasoned with soy, chiles, green onions, chopped peanuts and sauces. On viator.com, I had found a couple tours of the night market that offered insects, suggesting they were more of a tourist gimmick than true Khmer cuisine. But I had eaten bugs before and felt no need to expand that particular horizon.
So on we moved into the night, my silent tuk-tuk driver and I, on a noisy, bumpy ride, while I thought of chanting monks, carved sandstone and fish amok — my Cambodian adventure.