Monday, December 8, 2008

Loosening the belt

When I read in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook that Sihanoukville was Cambodia's answer to St. Tropez, I pictured white beaches, gorgeous people sunning themselves on the beach, fruity cocktails with those little umbrellas sticking up, way overpriced know, the usual jet set fantasy.

What I should have remembered was that I was in Cambodia, and no matter how "St. Tropez"-y a guide book claims a city to be, I was not about to find little umbrellas, undressed locals or overpriced food. This is Cambodia, people! The food is delicious and cheap, and Cambodians play in the surf fully clothed...and, not to change the subject, but that made me feel fairly uncomfortable and very immodest in my two-piece. Eh, so it goes.

Sihanoukville is an incredibly fun town. Most of the action is centered ocean-side, with bar upon bar upon bar lining the surf. Each bar has roughly the same menu, prices and same people hawking the same bracelets and games. They even share the same boys walking around, trying to engage you in "games" that will leave you scratching your head and wondering how you just lost the equivalent of 5USD to a scrawny little 11 year old (I saw it happen more than once).

Incidentally, the boys all follow the exact same speech when they find out there's an Aussie in their midst:
"G'day Mate! Ozzie, ozzie, ozzie, oy, oy, oy!"
Can someone explain this to me, please?

This town is a backpacker's dream. The only effort you have to put out is to walk down to the beach and flop on one of the couches or lounge chairs. The rest of your day can be filled to the brim with booze, sun and fun.

Of course, this is me we're talking about here, and while I can take a few days of the above, I tend to get a little antsy if I feel like I'm looking a bit too similar to the barbecued meats sizzling next to me.

Happily, my older sister had made me swear to take a cooking class in Sihanoukville while I was there, and I take promises to my sisters very seriously, especially when they involve food.

Khmer Cooking is located in a house a bit out of town, on the upstairs open-air level, outfitted with individual cooking stations including wok and mortar and pestle. I signed up for the whole-day cooking class, which allowed me to indulge in fresh spring rolls, fish amok (yes!), banana flower salad and mango with sticky rice (my special request).

The first two dishes were prepared alongside some lovely Swedish tour group leaders camped out in Cambodia for six months. The fresh spring rolls were as delicious as always, though made a bit more interesting with the use of crumbled bacon as the protein in lieu of the traditional shrimp or pork.

And the fish amok...well, let's just say that the first bite was akin to the moment in movies where a direct light shines down, seemingly from the heavens and you can hear Handel's Hallelujah chorus in the background. Come to think of it, each bite had that effect on me.

The second two dishes I prepared myself, as I was the only one who had signed up for a full-day class that day. That just meant I had more time with our lovely instructor to pepper her with questions.

The banana flower salad was a surprise, as I'd never even heard of a banana flower before I saw it on the menu (so much for being informed). The banana flower itself, sliced very very thinly on a bias, didn't add a pronounced flavor, but the crunchy texture was indispensable. Imagine pretty purple thin carrot rings tossed in a sweet yet tangy dressing with poached chicken and you'll have some idea of its deliciousness.

And the mango with sticky rice, you might ask? Sheer heaven, as I knew it would be. This particular version used freshly grated coconut rather than the already prepared coconut milk, which made for a slightly less creamy but still delightful dessert. Oh, and the perfectly ripe mango slices fanned on top might have had something to do with me doing my best to clean my plate and the subsequent bellyache that developed later that day. You can't let food like that go to waste.

I gave myself some extra time after the meal to slowly sip some wine (My God, but I had missed the vino!), digest and ask my teacher specific questions about the recipes. An incredibly sweet lady, she went over each recipe step by step with me, so I could add all of her individual tweaks to the printed version, which I will pass along soon enough.

Update (12/9/08): Below is my version of fish amok, adapted with help from my lovely teacher.

Fish Amok
Adapted from Khmer Cooking Class, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

If you have a mortar and pestle, I highly recommend using it here to get the proper paste texture. If, however, you don't have the time or inclination, it's perfectly acceptable and less tiring to make the spice paste in a food processor. The following makes an individual portion, as that is how it is generally served, but it's quite easy to double, triple or quadruple the ingredients and just make a much larger spice paste mixture to begin with.

1 firm white fish fillet cut into bite-size pieces (snapper would work great here)
1 14 oz. can, or about 2 cups, coconut milk, stirred to reincorporate both milk and cream
3 sheets of banana leaf (corn husks could be substituted here if necessary, or just use an oven-proof bowl)
1 red chili, sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced (leave out if unavailable)

Spice Paste:
1 quarter-sized chunk of galangal (substitute equal amount ginger if you can't find it)
1 Tbs roasted peanuts
1 large shallot
3 cloves garlic
3 dried red chilies, rehydrated by soaking in warm water for about 20 mins
1 Tbs chicken bouillon
3 tsp sugar
2 stalks lemongrass, only using white portion
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 kaffir lime leaves (substitute rind from one small lime and 1/2 tsp. lime juice if unavailable)

Start off by cutting the banana leaves into circles about 25 cm in diameter. Run them very quickly under warm running water to dampen. Layer the three circles one on top of the other, then fold in four corners, securing them with toothpicks to create a lidless box or basket.

Finely chop the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal. Add them, along with the turmeric, to the mortar and pestle and start pounding away (or, alternatively, throw them into the food processor). Next finely chop the shallot, garlic cloves, peanuts and rehydrated chilies before tossing them into the mixture as well. Once those are incorporated, add the sugar and chicken bouillon. Continue pounding or food processing until you have a thick, smooth paste.

Place a steaming basket over water and bring to a boil.

Heat your wok or large skillet on high and add the spice paste. Stir-fry for approximately 2 minutes, then add 2/3 of the coconut milk (about 1 1/2 cups). Continue stir-frying until the paste and coconut milk are a uniform color throughout. Add in the fish pieces, stir to coat, then place everything in your banana leaf basket.

Add remaining coconut milk to the top of your fish mixture, then garnish with red chili and kaffir lime leaf slices. Place banana leaf basket into your steamer basket, cover and let steam for approximately 20 minutes.

Serve in banana leaf basket with fresh jasmine rice on the side.

Serves 1.

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