“That's how you know it's not carrot,” he corrected me with a smile.
We were at the Smoking Pot, a cleverly-named restaurant and cooking school run out of our teacher's home by him and his various nieces and nephews. We were taking their $8 cooking class to learn how to make three Cambodian dishes— coconutty amok, fiery beef curry and a hot-and-sour soup. The turmeric is important in the first two dishes—we took it, dried red pepper, garlic, thinly sliced lemongrass and some salt, and mashed them together with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. The result was a beautiful, orange curry paste that adds flavor and color.
Now, before I go on, I know what my family and friends who have ever suffered through a Beth-cooked meal are chortling as they read this—something along the lines of, “about time she had a cooking class!.” And, it was a little scary for me, remembering all of the spaghettis burned because I got involved reading the newspaper and forgot about it and all of the “oh I don't want to go shopping so let's see what we can do with soy sauce, cous cous, canned tuna and various alcohols” meals.
But it wasn't like a graded thing, this class, and the only punishment would have to eat my own cooking at the end of the morning. So, we tried it. And it was fun!
First off we went to the wet market, which wasn't that big of a deal for us since it was basically like the ones in China we had been shopping at for the last three years. But one thing there that we never saw in China was how to make coconut milk—a woman hacks open a green nut with two deft swipes of a cleaver, drains the juice into a plastic tub and then shaves off the jelly-like meat of the green coco with a huge machine. We got a plastic bag of the shavings, put them in a cheesecloth back at the restaurant, and kneaded them into water until we had our own, hand-squeezed coconut milk.
Next, we pounded up our curry paste and then prepared the amok—fish for me, chicken for Dan. A few vegetables, meat and the curry along with the fatty coconut milk all boiled down in a wok until the teacher gave us the OK to eat it. Delicious!
The second dish, lok lak, was to be spicy. The teacher and assistants handed out some chili peppers and I took a (I thought) cautious amount—three green ones. Then we remembered that the green ones are hotter than the red ones and I made Dan switch with me. We had to slice the beef for this as thin as paper, and then fry it together with more paste and some other ingredients. Fantastic.
Third, we made a hot and sour soup, using lime juice for the sour and one pepper (really cautious now!) for the hot. We boiled some chicken bones and vegetables together for the stock.
And so, amazingly, the best meal we had in Cambodia was the one we cooked ourselves.
Then, full from our cooked meal, we hired an enthusiastic man and his friend to take us on the backs of their motorcycles on a trip to Phnom Sampeau, the site of limestone caves used as execution zones by the Khmer Rouge.
While I didn't expect the site of a mass grave to be a good time, it was fun to go there on the motorcycle (“Slow! Slow!” we told them, and they did). Walking on the street in Battambang it seems that everyone has a motorcycle—nine-year-old kids and all. We drove out through the rice fields and small villages and my driver gave a non-stop tour on the way:
“These kids, they are finding fish. The rice comes three times every year. When no water, the fish stay there. The kids can find the fish. These men they are waiting for the rice. Everyone has the rice. No rice, no happy!” And so on. Dan's driver, meanwhile, used up his English vocabulary pointing out interesting things too--one word: “Cow.”
The caves, also known as the 'killing caves' are half-way up a limestone hill about a half-hour from Battambang city center. The rest of the countryside is completely pancake-like, so the hill was impressive as we drove up to it.
People who fell afoul of the local Khmer Rouge bigwigs were taken to the top of the caves and dropped a hundred feet or more down to the dark, bat-infested caverns. I read later on the internet that perhaps as many as 10,000 people had died this way--they're still not sure. Now, there are wire cages full of old bones near the new Buddhist statues and a general, creepy feeling that things aren't right in an otherwise pretty spot.
The next day we would head out for Bangkok and then the diving paradise of Koh Tao, thinking to ourselves that Cambodia might be worth a second look in 2010.
**Click here to see photos of our stay in Battambang**