Saturday, July 17, 2010
"I'm In Heaven"
Just returned from one of the best culinary experiences I've had since arriving in Southeast Asia; a real cooking school! I'm a chef, what a novel idea! Yesterday during a lecture at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, my guide Rith, made arrangements for me and a few of my colleagues to attend a popular Cambodian cooking school close to our hotel called "Cambodian Cooking Class", the fee was $25.00 US for a full day, 9:00am to 4:00pm, which consisted of classes in traditional Cambodian KHMER breakfast, lunch and dinner item's, or a half day class for $12.50 US, from 9:00am to 1:00pm, which began with a tuck tuck ride to a local outdoor farmers market tour to purchase the ingredient's to be prepared in class. As you might guess my anticipation and expectations were; to say the least quite high. Since I've been in country, my discipline has probably been the least appreciated in research and first person interaction, I'm going nuts!. A professional chef can only tolerate so many museums, political forums, religious monuments, war memorial's, and such. Don't get me wrong, I've learned a lot since arriving here, but even our visits to the floating market in MY KHANH, to the bustling indoor market at BEN THANH have only wetted my appetite for more. I've seen, tasted, and savored the aromas of so many local exotic fresh herbs and spices; experienced so many unusual, and unique ingredients since arriving here, I long for more every day I'm here.
On arrival to the class; a small unassuming storefront restaurant, Rebecca, Florence and I were greeted by a young and quite beautiful Cambodian woman, short, slight of built, with a vibrant and extremely friendly personality named Janie Nhim. As she introduced herself I assumed ( and you know what happens when you assume anything!) she was one of the wait staff assigned to meet and greet us. We were about 20 minutes late leaving the hotel, and I was in a panic, not wanting to miss a beat, she informed us that it would be a few minute's before we would begin, as she was awaiting the arrival of two more student's for today's class. We paid our fees, and our two fellow culinarians arrived, a young charming married German couple Marion and Michael Milch from Lyon, France, who were on a food crawl through southeast Asia, foodies to the max! When the fees and what not were completed, we were escorted outside to two awaiting tuk tuk's and whizzed off down a buisey bustling and hairy fairway of humanity, hold on to your socks guys, we're on our way!
The farmer's market was a feast for a chef's eye's, been there done that so far, but this time we actually had a local chef as a guide.
It's what I've been waiting for the whole trip,( 21/2 week's later, but yet none too soon! ) Chef Janie meandered through the crowd without a pause, stopping periodically to show and explain the differences between various fresh herb's and spices, their traditional uses and culinary meaning's. What's used in courses according to ethnic tradition, region, religion, philosophy, and medicinal practice's.
We sampled fresh kaffir limen and their leaves,(exquisite), galangal, which resembles fresh ginger but has a more delicate and less bitter flavor, prahok, a pasty preserved fish paste, similar to shrimp or anchovy past used in traditional soups and sauces. I'm telling you guy's, I was in hog heaven! I've seen it, heard about it, read about it, and now I'm here first person and loving every moment! this is the place! After our shopping spree, we tuk tuk back to the restaurant, I'll make this short and to the point or I'll be here all night. We were assigned prep stations, observed a detailed and thoroughly explained chef's demonstration on each step and product to be prepared, and after about an hour or so, sat down to eat and drink a fabulous meal, we ourselves prepared! Awesome! Our group, all 5 of us were so proud of what we had prepared, and eaten together I will not ever forget this experience.
Rith finally arrived to pick us up, where the rest of the crew were waiting to visit another museum, or some other attraction that had nothing to do with me or Rebecka, so we opted to return to the hotel and rest for the remainder of the day. So off on a $2.00 tuk tuk ride back to the hotel we went for a well deserved rest until dinner at 6:30pm, where we were scheduled to meet another Fulbright group from Boston we met earlier the previous day.
Long story short, we met with a terrific group of people with similar interest's and educational goal's for dinner that night at "Friends",
an internationally renowned restaurant and hospitality organization. Cut to the chase. My pre-trip research often quoted that one specialty in this specific geographic region was deep fried tarantula, a local delicacy. Hey, it was on the menu! So, hey I had to try it. I ordered it as an an appetizer course, and it was fantastic! A little crunch on the extremities',and the abdomen which is considered a delicacy had a bit of crunch on the outside but creamy and soft on the inside, definitely tasty. (Hey guy's, it's all in you're head! ) The order had four whole spiders per order a beautiful garnish of fresh cucumber, tomato slices and a fresh kaffir lime dipping sauce, I definitely had to share with my group, brave souls that they are, each tried one, Mike, Rebecka, Joy and David, we are now kindred spirits.