Offering an introduction to Cambodia’s culinary scene, Knai Bang Chatt’s cooking course throws sea breezes, tropical gardens and lively markets into the mix
Executive chef Sam Sophorn is julienning ingredients at breakneck pace, his knife blurring as he transforms a sour green mango into uniform strips that will be a key ingredient in our tangy Cambodian salad.
In comparison, my attempt at chopping the ingredient is painfully slow. Despite such clumsy knife-work, thin pieces of mango, pepper, carrots, white onion and cucumber soon create a rainbow of colour on a simple white plate.
“The first time we eat is not with the mouth, but with the eyes,” explains the ever-patient Sophorn, who is guiding us through the essence of Cambodian cooking at Kep’s idyllic Knai Bang Chatt resort.
Metres away, the waters of the Gulf of Thailand gleam in the sun. And as we pop prawns into a bouillon infused with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal and garlic it’s clear that chef Sophorn is determined to make the most of the fresh, pure flavours that this peaceful corner of the Kingdom, known for its sumptuous seafood, has to offer.
Tucking into the result of our work, a mango verde salad topped with plump tiger prawns infused with a sauce hailing from the westerly province of Koh Kong, we learn to identify the core pillars of Cambodian cuisine – salt, sour, sweet, with a hint of spice – before moving on to our next challenge, and Sophorn’s personal favourite, lok lak.
The day had started early, with a short walk to the hotel’s new kitchen garden, perched on an outcrop of land with views of the sea beyond. The plot’s inaugural batch of organic lettuce was ready and waiting to be harvested. Green leaves were quickly plucked from the ground to later become part of our three-course meal.
But our exploration of the region’s finest ingredients had only just begun. We were soon hopping into a tuk tuk with Sophorn and sous chef Meas Vibol to discover more about the area’s natural bounty.
Our first stop is the rustic Kep market, where sellers lounge beside piles of ripe dragon fruit, bunches of herbs and great hunks of meat and offal. Catfish, still alive, slither in bowls, ready for the chop, making the visit an eye-opening experience for the uninitiated, but one typical of wet markets nationwide.
From there, we carry on to the famous crab market – a cornucopia of community life where vendors drag in baskets of live crabs from the sea, all set to be steamed by the kilo in great black pots. Nearby, locals sort through the day’s catch while a young prankster deposits a wriggling mantis prawn on an unsuspecting co-worker’s hat. Wandering though piles of dried shrimp and icy buckets of octopi, Sophorn and Vibol impart useful advice: the freshest squid have unclouded black eyes; female crabs are identifiable by their wide abdominal plate.
Plied with newfound knowledge, we are ready to cook, and soon I am tackling a chicken lok lak, a dish more commonly composed of cubed beef in a rich, spiced gravy.
By whisking a dizzying array of ingredients – which Sophorn has adapted to enable people to be able to recreate the dish at home – a rich, caramel-toned sauce appears. Once added to diced chicken, the mixture is fried on the stove, while an egg bubbles in a nearby pan. On the next burner, small yellow bananas are being popped into a pot of simmering sago pearls. With the addition of coconut milk, it becomes a soup-like concoction, with pieces of longan fruit adding a dash of perfume to the distinctive soft banana, scattered with a flourish of sesame seeds.
But, as the old adage goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Settling down to eat our lok lak, complemented by hand-picked lettuce leaves and steaming rice, followed by the sweet dessert, we savour the diverse tastes of a enticing cuisine. With our eyes taking in the turquoise sea beyond, life can’t get much better.