As I was cutting the squid into bite-sized pieces, I could hear chopping and cutting from all around the kitchen. Beverly was standing next to me grating a green papaya into slivers. And she looked spectacular. Shiny lip gloss and clad in a red apron and a matching chef’s hat, she could have been the star of a tele-cooking-novela. Pero no! There we were, taking a Cambodian cooking class at the Le Tigre de Papier restaurant in Siem Reap.
This was my first attempt to make good on one of my New Year’s resolutions: pick up some more skills as we travel the world. And what better reward than to have a delicious meal at the end of a challenge. Or so I hoped.
Our first task was to choose an appetizer and entree from the restaurant’s menu. British couple Julie and Andy were still discussing their options when Beverly and I made up our minds. Beverly went for green papaya salad and ginger chicken; I opted for a spicy shrimp salad and seafood Amok, my favorite Cambodian coconut curry. Easy enough.
After a quick tour of the local meat and vegetable market with our cooking instructor, we made our way up the steep stairs to the airy rooftop kitchen. It looked promising. The four work stations had already been set up with propane cookers, mortar and pestles, cutlery, ingredients, and protective clothing. I went straight for the apron and chef’s hat. I love dressing up. Sure, the outfit doesn’t make me a chef, but it definitely puts me in the right mood.
When the instructor handed us a pile of recipes from random websites, I felt let down. My hopes for access to the restaurant’s stash of secret recipes quickly dwindled. But there was no time for sorrow. I immediately started working. From grating carrots and cucumbers to boiling shrimp to chopping onions, I worked like a pro. And I didn’t even shed one tear. But was this all I was going to do – chop and slice? After all, the salad dressing was pre-made and the seafood was pre-weighed. I was afraid there was nothing new to be learnt.
But I was wrong. There was a challenge ahead of me: folding banana leaves into a little boat in which the Amok would later be served. I panicked. Have you seen my hands? They don’t do origami. After several attempts and humiliation, I finally managed to create a lop-sided, boat-like vessel. And with fingers like mine, this is no easy task.
Proud of my one accomplishment, I moved on to the mortar to pound lemongrass, fingerroot and turmeric into a paste. What a workout. As I was pounding the yellow paste, I glanced around the kitchen. Julie was rolling spring rolls, Andy was blending pumpkin and Beverly was re-applying lip gloss.
By the time the Amok paste was done, I had worked up quite an appetite. Fortunately, the actual cooking time was fast. Ten minutes before the end of class, the kitchen helper put the last pre-carved garnishes on our fancy looking dishes.
While we were enjoying our Cambodian lunch, I started contemplating my newly learnt skills. Sure, I learnt to cook Amok without running amok, but did I pick up any new skills? Did I learn how to carve a carrot rose? No. Did I learn about the history of Cambodian cuisine? No. Did I learn to use herbs in an exciting way? Absolutely not. So what did I learn? Well, I walked out of cooking class knowing exactly how to fold banana leaves into a boat. And that’s a skill, albeit somewhat pathetic, you can never take away – just like riding a bicycle. At least, I’m not one who makes a list of New Year’s resolutions and never follows up on them. Not me! 😉
Here’s the recipe for seafood Amok:
For 1 person:
- 3 oyster mushrooms
- 1/4 white onion
- 2-3 cauliflower leaves
- 2 red chili peppers
- A handful of shrimp and squid
- 1 stem of lemongrass
- 3 cm of fingerroot
- 3 cm of turmeric
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 small red onion
Additional ingredients needed:
- coconut milk
- vegetable stock
- 1/2 table spoon oyster sauce
- 1/2 table spoon sugar
- 1/2 table spoon chicken broth
- a few squirts of fish sauce
Cut seafood into bite-sized pieces, tear oyster mushrooms into strips, finely chop white onion and chili, roll up cauliflower leaves and cut them into thin strips.
For the amok paste, add finely chopped lemongrass, fingerroot and turmeric to a mortar and start working it into a paste. Then add garlic and red onion and keep pounding the yellow mixture.
Be aware that if you get turmeric or amok paste on your fingers or face, you’ll be branded for a couple of days.
Finally, after preparing all the ingredients, heat a ladle of coconut milk in a pan, add the amok paste and white onion, swirl it around, then add the seafood. Let the mixture cook for a couple of minutes.
Next, add a ladle of vegetable stock, cauliflower leaves, chili, oyster mushrooms, oyster sauce, sugar, chicken broth, and fish sauce to taste. Cook on high heat for a few minutes which reduces the liquid to a creamier consistency. Voila! It’s that easy.