Learning to cook Cambodian with a hopeless flirt

Learning to cook Cambodian with a hopeless flirt

A Cambodian cookery class with a Balinese womanizer -- what he can't teach you (and some of what he can) ain’t worth knowing

chef wayan mawaChef Wayan Mawa -- the go-to man for all your cooking-slash-seduction questions.Don’t let chef Wayan Mawa’s attempts with the ladies distract you.

He may appear to be an over-enthusiastic flirt , clumsily "charming" the female fruit and veg sellers at the local market like a Casanova protegé on his first day out of school. 

But whatever lessons you learn (or don't learn) about the art of seduction with Mawa you’ll learn 10-fold about Khmer cuisine.

Mawa in fact hails from Bali and is the executive chef at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap. In between his flirtations with the carrot and broccoli peddlers, he proves to be an entertaining guide for a tour of Cambodian food. 

Take an encounter with some tarantulas on sticks. “They taste good. Crunchy,” he smiles.

So he'd recommend them? 

“Oh no, it's not really safe to eat any of this stuff. It's been out in the sun too long, or it's been washed with the wrong water. You need to either fry it again, or clean it with a chemical.”

Cooking Khmer

The market tour is one part of the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Ankor's new cooking class.

Cambodian food Mawa says Thai cuisine was influenced by Cambodia, not the other way round.We pass over 50 individual ingredients, from lotus flowers to pigs' heads and frog-skin aubergines, all of them just as unsafe as the tarantulas, according to Mawa.

Instead he buys 95 percent of his produce directly from suppliers. Shellfish from Sihanoukville, vegetables from local farmers, salmon from Norway and he grows his own spices in the hotel garden.  

But the tour does give a quick introduction to the key elements in royal Khmer cuisine, the theme for this class. 

Mawa is a recent convert. “I didn't know anything about royal Khmer cuisine before I arrived three years ago,” he says. “Even Googling it didn't offer much help.” 

So he turned to local chefs and a 1957 cookbook. Written long before the Khmer Rouge cast its ominous shadow across the country, the book forms the basis for many of Mawa's dishes. 

Today, he takes great pride in his lok lac (delicious fried beef) and royal Khmer curry, as well as a fish soup, a prawn-mango salad and an overwhelmingly sweet baked pumpkin dish.

These dishes were the preference of the Cambodian royal family, and while you can now find them all over the country, historically they were made with rare, expensive ingredients and only eaten twice a year.

Distinctly Cambodian

Now, this cuisine's popularity is spreading beyond Cambodian borders.

Mawa's prawn mango salad is an adaptation of one of the dishes eaten by Khmer royalty in the past.Raffles recently ran a Khmer exposition at its sister property in Singapore and stand-alone Cambodian restaurants have opened in various cities including Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Mawa insists that, while uneducated palates may not be able to distinguish between the subtleties of the various Southeast Asian cuisines, Cambodian food is distinct.

“This country is completely different to the others,” he says. “Thai and Vietnamese food is not really involved in real Cambodian cuisine. The lok lac and Khmer curry are more similar to central Javanese food, for example.”

And while Cambodian curries -- especially the national favorite the amok -- are full of lime leaves and baby aubergines, it would be wrong to think they were influenced by Thai cuisine.

“Actually it was the other way around,” says Mawa. “Amok was created here and influenced the Thai food. When the Thais attacked Siem Reap they took everything, including some of the recipes.”

One thing it does share with Thailand is the speed and simplicity with which it is all made.

According to Mawa, nothing in Khmer cuisine should take anything longer than five minutes to cook -- although preparation may take considerably longer. Hence the promise to teach you how to cook six dishes in one hour.

The results, meanwhile, are almost always delicious, whether within the hallowed walls of Raffles or at a cheap-and-cheerful sit down joint in Phnom Penh.


Learn to cook Khmer style

The following places all offer Cambodian cooking classes. Click the links for more details. 

Raffles Grand Hotel D' Angkor

1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Siem Reap
+855 (0)63 963 888

Frizz Restaurant
67 Street 240, Phnom Penh
+855 (0)23 220 953

Le Tigre De Papier
Sok San Street, Siem Reap
+855 (0) 63 760 930

Angkor Village Hotel
Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap
+855 (0) 63 963 461

Linna Culinary School
LH44, Street 265, Tuk Laak 3, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh
+855 (0) 23 880 123