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Doing it all on market day: Cooking Cambodian at The Elephant Walk

9.July 2011

“Yesterday was my Cambodian cooking class!” I nearly shrieked into the phone.

My mom replied, surprised, “You took a Cambodian cooking class? I didn’t know you were taking a Cambodian cooking class!”

No, that’s normally not the way I answer the phone, but I was so excited I couldn’t contain myself.

Had you asked me a year ago if I were likely to take a Cambodian cooking class, I might not have replied in the affirmative, but a number of things conspired to make it the most obvious course of action this Summer.  

One: I had a homemade gift certificate from my dear husband hanging on the fridge.  It was leftover from Christmas and needed using.  I was, it told me, entitled to a cooking class of my choice. 
I had just finished reading Margaret Drabble’s deeply odd but moving The Gates of Ivory, the account of a British journalist gone missing in the jungle of Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  
I read a note on Twitter about the “Market Day” class offered by the chef and owner of The Elephant Walk.

Reading about the class with the taste of the novel still fresh in my memory, I shrieked to my very patient, kind, and generous husband “Honey! I want to take that one!” (I may have emailed him a link with a message to that effect, but it was in all caps, so it was like shrieking.)  Not long after, I was signed up for the class and counting down the days.

When the morning arrived, I realized that 8:30 is actually really early for a Saturday morning and almost questioned my decision to sign up for the class, but I hauled myself out of bed, through the shower, to Starbucks, and into a cab.  I made it with time to spare and as I began to wake up, I began to be really, really excited.

The plan was this: we would all pile into a van, drive to a couple of Asian markets, come back to the restaurant, cook our food, and eat.  It. was to be an all day affair.  In the end we only went to one Asian market (Battambang in Revere) because we were all too enthralled and kept asking questions and made too many purchases.  By the time we got back to the restaurant it was almost eating time and we still had all that cooking to do.

The class split into three groups to tackle the three hot dishes we would be preparing while I and a guy in the class set to julienne-ing green mango for a salad. I had feared we would be julienne-ing by hand (which I did later, when I made this salad at home – photo at bottom), but to my great joy, I met the julienne peeler (go. buy. one. of. these.) and went to town.

We shredded our way through a pile of mangoes (seven or eight of them? It felt like more.), julienned some peppers, boiled pork belly (yum.), and shallots, and tossed with fish sauce.  Now, you should know that I didn’t think I’d like that kind of salad.  But I was a fool.  A closed-minded idiot of a fool.  Delicious.

At that point someone realized that the beef Loc lac that was on the menu had been wholly forgotten and was marinating away just looking for someone to love, so my comrade at julienne-ing and I jumped to.  He mastered most of the cooking, and I pitched in for the seasoning when Nyep came over and saw that we had left out most of the seasonings.  She threw in a good two tablespoons of pepper and soy sauce that came under the heading of “to taste” in the recipe and began to tell us the intricacies of seasoning Cambodian food.  Chinese food, she told us, is easy because it’s “just salty.  That’s all you need to know.”  Cambodian food has a more complex flavor profile and finding the right balance of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty is not only difficult, but it is also the crux of cooking this delicious food.  It’s a must.

When she declared the beef to have been seasoned perfectly (after the two of us had previously declared it done only to be scoffed at as Nyep tossed in another spoonful of sugar or salt or a pinch of pepper), it was delicious.  Spicy and earthy thanks to the pepper, salty and rich thanks to the Mushroom Soy Sauce Nyep had added, sweet from the sugar.  I wondered where the sour was in this dish, but I shouldn’t have doubted.  The dipping sauce for the beef was lime juice with pepper.  It sounds like an odd combination (beef with lime? WEIRD.), but it elevated the beef in a way I hadn’t expected.  Totally brilliant. 

The other dishes we made were Ginger Catfish (involving two CUPS of julienned ginger) and Cambodian “Ratatouille,” a rich vegetable stew steeped with the flavor of lemongrass and a lot of herbs and spices I had never tried before, or heard of, for that matter.  

It was a transformative experience.  The idea was that we would learn to shop for Cambodian ingredients (so as not to be intimidated or confused by Asian markets) and then learn to cook with them.  I feel like I learned both that day and my attempt later that week at making my own Cambodian feast seemed to be proof.  It was the first time that the flavors involved in a particular cuisine had been broken down into components for me like that and I can honestly say that that one lesson has vastly improved my savory cooking! Not only can I fall back on Nyep’s stunning recipes, but I have since managed to make stir fries that aren’t “just salty” simply by paying attention to the flavor profile of the ingredients.  I think it’s safe to say that I won’t soon forget that class.  Simply amazing.

Things I learned from Nyep:

  • Thai basil isn’t Thai basil.  It’s Asian basil.
  • Cambodian food is served family style and with several dishes all at once, not in courses.
  • You should always add something green right at the end, for freshness and color.
  • When buying catfish frozen at the Asian market, buy ones with yellow bellies.
  • Mangosteens are delicious, but expensive.
  • Green mangoes are tarter the smaller they are.
  • Kaffir lime leaves aren’t technically legal to buy here, but you can get them off the internet. Also, they need to be deveined before using.

As I mentioned, a few nights after the class I made a Cambodian feast for my friends Liz and Mike to celebrate Liz’s recent graduation from grad school (woo!  Go Liz!).  I tackled three of the four dishes (I didn’t have the ingredients for the Cambodian Ratatouille) and in just a couple of hours of cooking, we had a steaming hot beautiful meal to enjoy.

Pictured above: Ginger catfish, Beef Loc lac, and mango salad.

My favorite of the recipes I learned that day was the Ginger Catfish.  I have a serious love of ginger and all ginger-related dishes, savory or sweet.  And this dish packs a serious ginger punch without being so spicy you can’t eat it.  Beautiful.  Serve it with jasmine rice.  And be sure to taste it for seasoning!  It won’t be quite right if you don’t!

Trey Cha K’nyei – Ginger Catfish
adapted from The Elephant Walk

  • 5 T vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)
  • 2 C peeled, julienned ginger (about 1/2 pound)*
  • 1 1/2 Lb catfish or tilapia (or any mild-ish white fish) fillets, cut into strips about 1/4″ wide
  • 3 1/2 T sugar
  • 2 T mushroom soy sauce (This can be bought in Asian markets.  In a pinch, use regular, but reduce salt.)
  • 2 T fish sauce (I was told to buy the one with a big fat happy baby on the label – see picture below)
  • 1 t salt (less if using regular soy sauce)
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 red bell pepper, julienned (*slices about 1/8″ thick – cut skin side up)
  • 1/2 bunch scallions, cut into 2″ pieces (about a handful)
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.  Then cook the ginger, stirring frequently, until brown and crisp.  It’ll smell sweet and spicy.  Don’t let it burn.  This will take 5-10 minutes depending on your stove and pan.
  2. Add the fish and stir gently until mixed with the ginger.  It’s okay if it breaks apart into smaller pieces. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until just about done.
  3. Add the sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, and salt.  Stir well, then add the onion and cook until the onion has begun to soften, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the pepper and scallions and cook about 2 minutes, until pepper begins to soften.
  5. Serve family style with Jasmine rice.
*To julienne ginger, peel, then cut slices about 1/8″ thick.  Then turn them on their side and cut strips again about 1/8″ thick so that you you have matchstick sized strips of ginger.  Cut to lengths of about 2-3″.  No, it’s not easy the first time around, but yes, it is worth it.  It could always be worse – you could be julienne-ing green mango by hand.  Which I did.  So there.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10.July 2011 12:06

    I feel lucky to have experienced your new skillfulness in Cambodian cuisine. Those were dishes I’ve found myself thinking of often, accompanied by the thought “Must eat that again.” Such lively, layered flavors!

    • Darby O'Shea permalink*
      11.July 2011 19:03

      Mmmmm. I also want to eat them again. Want to drive to Revere and buy ingredients with me?

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