After Skypeing my good friend Joe this morning (knowing that friends, family, and home are really not too far away), I left the Tomato Guesthouse’s rooftop terrace and walked to Smokin’ Pot restaurant for the day’s cooking class. While waiting for any sign of life since the restaurant seemed closed up for the day, I met two of my classmates, a Canadian couple that is on a year long travel adventure with their two kids. When our culinary teacher showed up, he said that we would be cooking at a different location and not shopping at the central market. After giving the Canadians a ride on his motorcycle (if you think three adults riding a motorcycle is a lot then you haven’t seen anything with the number of people and inanimate objects I have witnessed balancing on a bike), he came back to pick me up. We drove essentially the same path from which I came and approached Tomato Guesthouse. I figured it was just a coincidence that we would be passing it on the way to the kitchen but when we stopped and saw the Canadians I realized my guesthouse was directly next to the kitchen. I had seen the Smokin’ Pot sign many times passing it but I assumed this place was just trying to steal the name. Along with the two Canadians, I would be cooking with two French speaking Swiss girls. From there, we walked to the market so that our teacher could pick out the ingredients and show us around. The market had so much color with the various fruits, vegetables, and curry pastes on display let alone the horrifying sight of flies flying around pigs’ heads, whole skinned chickens with their heads still attached, and guts sitting in a pool of their own liquid. Since we would be preparing fish amok, we needed fish. Our fish came fresh as we watched it killed before our eyes as the woman skinned it while it still wriggled its quickly lifeless nerves. Even though I have seen it time and time again through the many markets I make a point of frequenting, I still cannot fathom their disregard for hygiene and sanitation. Beyond the trash that is scattered throughout the streets upon which they sell their goods and the flies that buzz from trash to food, I saw locals toss their money on raw, dead animal flesh while the shopkeepers wrapped up their chosen meat before stashing away the unclean currency. Buon appetite! Back at Smokin’ Pot (2), we began preparation for the famous Cambodian dish fish amok. With our mini cleavers and circular wooden cutting boards, we began slicing and dicing away at the chilies, kefir lime leaves, galangal (ginger’s spicier cousin), garlic, and lemon grass. Once cut fine, we tossed each of the ingredients into our individual stone mortars before grinding it into a smooth paste with the pestle on hand. The curry paste got diluted and integrated with coconut milk before adding the chunks of fish previously prepared. With the serious prep work over, we needed a bit of artistry and deft of hand to make our banana leaf boats down to spec so that our coconut and fish broth wouldn’t leak through. After the banana leaf boat added some structure by way of toothpicks, the coconut cream milk, paste, and fish hopped into the boat before being precariously placed on a steamer for the next forty five minutes. In the meantime, we chatted for a bit as I found out I needed to see some of the Canadian rugged wilderness along with the American forests and parks just over the border after speaking with the Canadians. With little rest to spare, we began assembling the dish that would become spicy chicken and morning glory. Morning glory is similar to a spinach in that it is bitter and a popular green to be used a base from which the Asian spices can shine. At the wok in speedy fashion, I added the garlic and oil before hustling to throw in the chicken and curry paste and then the morning glory and holy basil leaves since timing means everything when lording over a wok for what felt like easily less than four or five minutes. With the given rice, I enjoyed the food but I came here most of all to experience my own homemade amok with the time honored tricks of the Khmer kitchen up my sleeve. After steaming off the liquid, the amok became quite thick. It was a small portion but I can’t deny the flavor profile. Once back in the States, some fish amok will be joining the menu. It had been a pleasure cooking and talking with the group especially the Canadians who are a true inspiration to me showing it is possible to get beyond the possible barriers of life to travel if you want it and make the commitment. After downing a papaya and mango smoothie, I relaxed to avoid the heat while already beginning the research process for buying the ticket for my flight home in early November. While traveling and backpacking, rest feels rare. Sure I throw myself a bone here and there but I always feel like there is something more to do because in all actuality there really is since I for the most part take each day as it comes not knowing what I will do beyond tomorrow. Before the time to go to the bus station arrived, I explored the market once more since it always is a great place to kill some time exploring and possibly interacting with locals. Today, the market was as dead as I have ever seen it on this day, second day of the Khmer New Year holiday and festival. I bought some jackfruit since I am always trying to explore and experience new things in any form that it may come. It smelled and tasted like a lighter durian but with far less onion. At first, I could see why people may like it then as my tastebuds began to figure what I had inflicted upon them they said ‘ah, hell no!’ To be honest, I miss the simple, crisp, and somewhat sour taste of a Granny Smith Apple. If that isn’t an excuse to wave an American flag proudly I don’t know what is. I would swim in a pool of stinky durian fruit just to have one bite of a true, natural PB&J, a spoon of American cereal, or a piece of homemade, personally designed Italiano pizza. The food here is good but some things just can’t be a touch of home. A man approached me on motorbike asking me if I spoke English. He was running a English teaching school with very little funding and eventually I realized it was quite genuine but I simply cannot be expected to donate to every man and woman on the streets. Good Lord I would love to but I am just a 24 year old kid. I will certainly chip in from time to time but the tree doesn’t have many leaves to spare. He even asked if I wanted to volunteer to teach English for even a week but I already bought my ticket to go to Phnom Penh. After he left, I got my bag and went to the bus ticket office to get switched over to my bus to the capital. Nothing special occurred during the ride and I am thankful no mind bending music came onto the bus TV screen forcing me to undergo a self-doctored lobotomy.
‘Wats’ in Cambodia Day 125: Cambodian Cooking