Beyond the cooking class in Siem Reap
When I was traveling through South East Asia 15 years ago, local food always was my main focus. Since many journeys were half leisure and half business, we mostly stayed in hotels. We had at least dinner there. but here and then we escaped and tried the local food next door. And sometimes we got invited to our guides or business partner‘s homes. We could experience what we call now beyond the cooking class.
Nothing is wrong with a cooking class as an activity in Siem Reap and other destinations in Cambodia. You usually go to the market, what for many tourists is an exciting experience itself. You indulge in exotics smells, watch Muslim women selling meat, jump aside when a motorbike drives between the stalls and may even help to catch a fish that tried to escape from the bucket.
With a tuk tuk full of groceries you head then back to the restaurant, hotel or a special place. Guest wash the food and prepare it for the actual cooking. Some hotels may even swap the food from the market with their own stock out of quality concerns. Then the cooking starts. You cut the greens, pound the paste and make nice decorations from a water melon and carrots.
Once the meal is done, guests sit together and the tour leader or guide gives further explanations about the food, the local life and when is the best time to grow and harvest rice. You learn a lot about a culture quite different from what you know in the west.
Why we want to go beyond the classic cooking class
At Dine With The Locals we go beyond the cooking class. We skip the market, because it saves time and many tourists have been to markets anyway. Another reason is that our hosts grow some of the food in their own backyard. Panha Yem in Battambang runs her own organic farm. You harvest some of the vegetables used in your meal with your own hands. Nue Thai in Siem Reap has a small garden, but shows you how the galangal plat looks like, let you pick a custard apple and make tea from jasmine flowers or lemongrass. If you like to eat eggs at Vannarith‘s home, you have to go to the chicken sheds behind the house and get some.
As it is custom in Cambodia, every host offers three dishes. Those are most of the time the families favorite Cambodian food. Quite often families trade a recipe from generation to generation, with little variations. For example Samlor Chi. You will not get this in a restaurant, and its not mae in cooking classes. Samlor Chi is a soup with chili paste, garlic, ginger and coconut milk. Then you add fish, eggplant and pumpkin i. We invite guests to make the paste for themself, so they get a better understanding what tools are used and how a traditional Khmer family prepares their meals.
Holistic approach to food experience
Experience means for us a holistic experience. The house we hosts our guests is not just a nice decoration or background for pictures, but it’s home for our guests during their time. Tourists in Siem Reap may know the history of the temples but not the history of the food they make in a cooking class that is different. Just look at Beef Lok Lak, a dish famous with tourists – at yet not a real Khmer dish, but from Vietnam. And although we don’t serve crocodile meat, we do have a host with a crocodile farm (they just breed and sell eggs and babies).
Food experience is a whole experience, from preparing a meal to eating it and talking about it. Why not trying it?