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Cambodian cuisine may not have the global profile of Thai or Vietnamese food, but it's certainly not from lack of flavour, sophistication or influence. Most visitors to Cambodia discover local food on the street, prepared and sold from the numerous outdoor restaurants and food stalls. And compared to its neighbours, many tourists say that Cambodian street food is quite bland. That's because it contains few of the herbs and spices commonly found on the streets of both Thailand and Vietnam
But don't be fooled, says ex-pat restaurant owner and food critic, Frits Mulder, great Cambodian cooking does exist, but to experience it you have to visit a real Cambodian restaurant. The best way to learn about Cambodian cuisine is in a hands-on cooking class like this one, offered to tourists by Frizz restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Frits Mulder: "In Thailand tourists eat the food on the streets where it's quite good, but in Cambodia, street food is basic and not really very tasty. That's why Cambodian food has a bad reputation. But when they come to a proper Cambodian restaurant many of them discover that they prefer Cambodian food to Thai food. It's less spicy so the flavours come through better."
The class begins at the local food market where participants select the raw ingredients they will need to prepare a three course meal.
Hun Li Heng: "Ok this one everyone, they call it 'saw-mint' because you can see this, outside here, it's like a saw when your cutting, so we call it 'saw-mint'.
All of the ingredients must be fresh, says cooking instructor Hun Li Heng, a former street child, who trained as a chef and discovered a knack for passing on what he had learned to others.
Hun Li Heng: "Khmer people like to eat fresh so it's good for your health. Because Cambodian people don't have a fridge at home, everyday they buy fresh ingredients and they eat them straigt away."
A popular dish across Asia and the world, spring-rolls are prepared as an appetiser. They are served with a sweet dipping sauce made from sugar cane paste, garlic and mild chili.
All of the ingredients are crushed together using a pestle and mortar which helps to bring out the flavours, explains Hun Li Heng. Although the class lasts just one day, participants quickly begin to understand the effects of each ingredient, figuring out what substitutes could be made back in their respective countries, if they can't find taro root or galangal in their local supermarket.
Hun Li Heng: "In Cambodia we use all our ingredients and we making paste. So everything mostly- or the garlic we normally- we grind it up because it produces flavours. It gives nice textures and nice flavours when we pound it."
Kathy Sattler, one of the students, says that fresh herbs are essential in Cambodian cooking.
Kathy Sattler: "Cambodian food has many different spices and flavours that makes it very exciting. And the texture of it is very interesting and because it's all powedered and really made from the real ingredients makes it very good, very good, and very tasty and colorful, yeah."
Khmer recipes go back centuries - long before chili peppers were introduced in the region by the Portuguese. Consequently, Khmer food tends to be less spicy than Thai food
But the mildness of Cambodian food allows the full flavour of the ingredients to shine through.
Scott Sattler: "We have powdered spices and we don't see the real fresh roots. And to grind them in a mortard pestle and to smell the flavours released are just wonderful. And at the same time to have an opportunity in a class like this to get to know the cook and to get know this Cambodian background and other peopel who are in the class make it a great adventure."
After preparing the appetiser, work begins on the main course - fish amok, a Cambodian curry combining fresh water fish, peanuts and coconut milk. Banana leaves are softened over an open flame and to be used as serving bowls. The dish is topped off with a garnish of fresh herbs.
After every dish, there's plenty of time to relax and talk with the other participants as they eat their own culinary creations. It's an intimate and laid-back class where students have plenty of time ask questions and get to know their fellow classmates. Each says that they enjoyed the class and would be bringing at least some of the secrets of Khmer cooking back to their home countries.
Information for this report was provided by APTN.