After a village walk, guests learn how to make traditional Khmer cuisine. // © 2016 Urban Adventures
Feature image (above): An English-speaking guide explains Cambodian ingredients and village life. // © 2016 Urban Adventures
A travel agent friend of mine recently complained that the Siem Reap, Cambodia, activities recommended by her DMC were generic. I don’t blame the DMC; there are quite a few obligatory sites for the first-time visitor to Siem Reap. And while it would be heresy to skip out on Angkor’s epic temples, the reality is that dawn-to-dusk temple hopping is exhausting.
A late-afternoon solution — the Cambodian Cook-Out tour from Intrepid Travel’s one-day tour product, Urban Adventures — is exactly what I recommended to my agent friend for her millennial honeymooners.
Two tuk tuks (small, three-wheeled motorized vehicles) arrived, and in 20 minutes or so, my friends and I were out of the tourist center and into new territory: a small village, where we were greeted by Srey Leak, our local, English-speaking guide.
Though we were there to learn about food, other aspects of daily life could be heard — like the chanting at a nearby temple mixed with the sounds of passing motorcycles.
Several adorable, pint-size villagers chaperoned us on our walk, but I did manage to listen to our guide. She told us that short-grain rice is the main meal in Cambodia and that many families grow their own. Food was also a lens to learn about superstitions — food and rice wine can be used as an offering to spirits — as well as domestic roles.
“Women can’t get married until they know how to cook,” Leak said.
For most women, this happens between the ages of 18 and 24. Then, their domain becomes the kitchen, a simple outdoor setup with a wood burner at its center, removed from the living quarters. When we arrived at a local kitchen, we inspected the ingredients, which were separated into plastic bags and jars and stuffed in the openings of a thatched wall. Missing were many of the conveniences Westerners are used to — namely, a refrigerator.
Leak pointed out other ingredients — from bitter gourd to mint — in outdoor gardens and a community market, where produce was laid out on a table, while bags of oil, prahok (fermented fish paste) and pieces of meat hung from the wall.
As the sun began to set, we walked through the entrance of a private garden and into an enclosed outdoor kitchen set up with five propane stoves. Our guide-turned-masterful-chef taught us how to make a cocktail and three Khmer courses: green mango salad with chicken or tofu, fish or tofu amok (steam-cooked in banana leaves) and caramelized bananas.
In between bites punctuated by kefir lime, lemongrass and coconut, we concluded that Cambodian food is totally underrated. We also got a sense of what’s overrated: generic itineraries that make no time for breaking bread with locals.