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Cambodia's magic ingredients

Jeff Mills savours the country’s sights, sounds and fiery dishes on a whistlestop cooking tour

What do you do straight after a 16-hour flight to Phnom Penh via Bangkok? Check into your hotel, then get straight out into the bustling city for an evening food tour, of course!

But this is no ordinary city and no ordinary food tour. It's a baptism of fire as I board a tuk-tuk that weaves its way through the city's notorious traffic. Tuk-tuks and bikes aside, transport here tends to be ancient mopeds, often carrying entire families along with the week's food shopping.

This is just the start of my mission not only to sample the best Cambodian food, but to learn how to cook it, too. The idea is that guests visit and sample the food at a handful of restaurants specially selected to provide a snapshot of Cambodia's fare and how it has influenced the cuisine of many other countries in Asia and further afield.

Traditional Cambodian food

Stop one is an establishment called Sophat's, which is so small and looks so insignificant in a busy road of other streetfood vendors that it could easily be mistaken for a garage or storeroom equipped with plastic tables and chairs.
But this place specialises in num banh chok, a dish of Khmer noodles in broth, a Cambodian staple typically served either for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. A quick delicious taster is washed down with a small glass of cold local beer before we move on. Through crowded backstreets, our tuk-tuk makes its way to Boat Noodles, a much more atmospheric restaurant -
almost luxurious by comparison. The menu here is far more extensive and includes tantalising dishes such as pork ribs roasted in a ceramic jar over an open fire, served with fresh mango salad.

A couple of small family-owned restaurants are up next. The Corner restaurant sits on a bustling street that's excellent for people-watching and sampling a tender chicken satay before heading nearby to an establishment called Song's Barber Shop for assorted nibbles and more of the ice-cold local Angkor beer. Final stop is the Sundown Social Club on the top floor of an old house overlooking the Russian market, giving fabulous city views and the perfect place to sample local craft beers.

After such a busy evening, it is time to retreat to one of Phnom Penh's latest hotels, the much acclaimed Rosewood in the riverside area of the city centre. It's set in the top 14 floors of the landmark Vattanac Capital Tower and is hard to beat for luxury and magnificent vistas over the Mekong, as well as the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers.

Sora Bar on level 37

There's just time to head to the open deck on level 37 and the Sora Bar, where outstanding sunsets are accompanied by the talents of accomplished bartenders and a resident DJ. After sampling some of the vast selection of cocktails on offer, I head off to my very well-appointed room.

The next day sees my Cambodian food education begin proper with a morning cooking class with local star chef Rotanak Ros. Usually there are three or four in the cooking classes but I was lucky enough to be on my own. In fact the sessions are ideal for solo travellers. Also known as Chef Nak, Rotanak Ros is a passionate cook, food writer and entrepreneur whose mission is to preserve the art of Cambodian cuisine, much of which features on the menu at the hotel's Brasserie Louis, alongside French comfort food such as cassoulet and steak tartare with frites.

Chef Nak preparing ingredients

Highly recommended is sa gio, which I spend the morning learning to prepare. Although I'm quite a confident cook it's wonderful to learn new techniques and work with unfamiliar produce. This is a dish consisting of spring rolls with taro root, carrots and peanuts with a lime chilli dip and chhar kdam doung - wok-fried crab cooked in coconut milk and lemongrass. It is delicious and one I mark down to try on my family and friends on my return.

Before leaving the centre of Phnom Penh, there is just time for a really quick city tour, so I grab another tuk-tuk and head off to see some of the main sights, including, of course, the incredible Central Market, known locally as Phsar Thmei, which has at its centre a magnificent Art Deco building, complete with an impressive dome.

The market opened in 1937 and is one of half a dozen in the city where locals make daily visits to buy virtually all their food, though there are also plenty of stalls catering to tourists, with souvenirs, handicrafts, jewellery and watches - many of them fake designer brands. Early morning in the markets is where exotic smells and sounds seem to hit you from all angles whether it's the scent of food fresh from the fields or the aroma of spices sold by weight on the pavement. Crowds of people jostle to buy the best produce on offer at the hundreds of stalls as traders call out their prices.

But I'm on a schedule and the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum all pass by in a flash as my tuk-tuk and I head back to the Rosewood. They deserve much more time and attention than I'm able to give them, but that provides the perfect excuse to return to this fascinating city another time.

My next stop is The Balé Phnom Penh, a delightful little boutique hotel right by the Mekong River on the outskirts of the city. Designed to be super-relaxing, its minimalistic main building is reached by a path suspended over a dark-tiled pool with, seemingly, Buddhas at every turn until you reach a courtyard planted with a Bodhi tree, said to be a symbol of enlightenment.

The cookery class here is under the guidance of chef Men Somera and takes place at the poolside under an awning to protect those taking part from the scorching sun. As you clean, chop, shred and stir-fry, you can watch the boats on the river head lazily downstream. Dishes prepared under the chef's watchful eye include delights such as sngor jruk sach mon - chicken sour soup with lime and coriander; nhom suary chearmuy trey chrer - green mango salad. with smoked fish; and a Khmer classic, amok trey fish curry.

After the class, we 'students' sit down at tables in the hotel's Theato restaurant to sample the results.

The final stage of my culinary adventure begins at Siem Reap airport, Cambodia's second gateway. Tourists come here mainly to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, dedicated to Vishnu and originally built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the 12th Century as his state temple and mausoleum.

During my 20-minute chauffeured drive from the airport to the Amansara hotel - in a vintage Mercedes - we cross bustling Pub Street with its dozens of bars and restaurants. The Amansara, originally built as a guest house for VIPs visiting Cambodia's king, is at the top end of the luxury scale. Suites open on to private courtyards, some with private pools. Its peaceful location is just the right distance from the busy centre of Siem Reap, which you can reach in minutes in one of the hotel's complimentary tuk-tuks.

Amansara's beautifully restored traditional Khmer village house

Next morning we're back on the food trail, this time with the Amansara's executive chef, Daniel Horn. Travel through the villages and you'll pass stalls lining pot-holed roads, some selling nothing but chickens, some fish, often still flapping in shallow tanks, while others offer mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables.

We visit a market to collect supplies and then, via a village specialising in making rice noodles the traditional way, to the Amansara's beautifully restored traditional Khmer village house within the Angkor Archaeological Park to prepare lunch, with a little help from a couple of Khmer cooks.

Many favourites make an appearance: spring rolls, kroeung curry with chicken skewers and fish amok and fish curry steamed in banana leaves with some egg to thicken it up - as close as there is to a Cambodian national dish.

And then the bliss of eating it all for lunch on the veranda, with a chilled glass of wine (French, of course) and a fabulous view across the lake known as the Royal Bathing Pool, where I do indeed feel like a king.

First published in the Mail on Sunday - April 2022

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