Learn the secrets of Khmer cuisine at S Reap’s Changkran cooking classes

0

With over 20 years of international culinary experience in top hotels and resorts in Cambodia and abroad, Chef Sing Sopheak Mongkol has returned to open Changkran Khmer Restaurant, serving Khmer dishes to help promote Cambodian culture to foreign visitors gradually return to Siem Reap.

Not only that, Mongkol plans to go a step further and offer Khmer cooking classes. He said the purpose of the classes is partly to provide tourists with a fun experience after visiting the famous ancient temples nearby, but also to spread awareness and love for Cambodian food.

“Mostly Europeans and foreigners come to Siem Reap and after visiting Angkor Wat try to find some fun activities in our province, such as: [Phare Ponleu Selpak] circus, but that can still leave a lot of unplanned time so they can use some of that free time to take cooking classes with me,” he said.

Born into a poor family, Mongkol became interested in cooking because his grandmother was recognized in the community as a skilled cook and was always recruited to help with the meals whenever there were events or gatherings in the village.

“I learned a lot from her and started cooking for my family when I was 15,” he said.

Mongkol knew he needed additional skills to make a good living as a chef and he started learning English from the monks at the pagoda, who all loved Mongkol’s cooking.

“In 2003 I was lucky enough to visit the newly opened Paul Dubrule School in Siem Reap. That was the start of my career as a chef,” he recalls.

After graduating, he began working in upscale three and four star hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. In 2008 he worked as a private chef on a luxury cruise ship in Greece.

“It was a difficult job as I was alone in the kitchen and had to be on board to cook for small groups of tourists who were there on 1-2 week voyages,” he recalled.

After only 10 months working on the ship, he returned home and worked as a chef in a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, where he mainly cooked Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.

In 2012, he took a job at the luxury resort of Amannyara in the Turks and Caicos before eventually returning to Cambodia to open his own restaurant.

Established in 2018, Changkran Khmer Restaurant is housed in a traditional Khmer wooden house in a quiet location in the city, giving it a fresh but private atmosphere.

The traditional wooden house with its high ceilings, spacious rooms and large dining area is also the place where Mongkol wants to hold his cooking classes for large and small groups of guests.

“To teach them how to cook, we use the actual menu and let them choose what they want like ordering it, rather than learning how to cook it,” he said.

The 3-hour cooking class also includes a shopping spree at a nearby market for ingredients, background and commentary on Khmer history, explanations of the ingredients’ sources and folk beliefs about them.

“We teach about each article, e.g. B. where it came from and where it’s grown because we’re still a nation of farmers and our people like to know that. We talk about vegetables, different ways vegetables can be eaten, how to choose the best ones and what are the benefits,” explains Mongkol.

Back at the restaurant, guests will have their own work tables and cooking utensils, and some assistant chefs will be available to provide the level of assistance required, making it easier for inexperienced chefs and beginners to take the course. You can expect them to learn how to make snacks, main courses and desserts.

“There are three things you learn in the cooking class: a salad or an appetizer and then we make the main course and then another dessert,” he said.

The end of the class is always enjoyable as the students can eat what they have prepared, especially for some guests who have done so

never spent much time in the kitchen or picked up a paring knife, and now they can be extra proud that they have what it takes to be good cooks.

“They then cook and eat it right there and enjoy their own food. I think many guests feel refreshed and happy when they receive their bib apron and their chef’s hat and succeed in cooking under our guidance,” said Mongkul.

Foreign guests have written many positive reviews for Changkran Khmer Restaurant on Tripadvisor and in turn have led many other tourists there to learn how to cook.

“To be honest, my interior is small and the entrance narrow. Therefore, it is difficult for local visitors who come by car. For travel agencies using a tour bus, it is also difficult to park and walk a long distance because the road is narrow,” Mongkul said.

Word of mouth and social media have made him a hit, and many of the guests who stay at the area’s star-studded hotels come and eat at his restaurant.

Tourists receive certificates after attending Changkran’s Khmer cooking class – in addition to the delicious meal they just prepared. Changkran Khmer

“We’re close to the big hotels where a lot of guests stay, and they’re all good customers, and when they come to relax, they see our business and are very keen to try it,” he said.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the cooking classes at the Khmer Restaurant have also welcomed local visitors as organizations or companies started booking with him to learn about teamwork through culinary activities.

“They come to do team building. We have many groups that want to cook with us, usually 20 people at a time, so we split them up to learn how to work as a team,” the chef said.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he had to close the restaurant for more than a month, which was not easy financially.

“Then, after reopening to welcome customers in August for cooking classes only, we received 10 groups of guests. A group of two people, then four people, six people, sometimes eight people. In comparison, we actually had fewer customers before Covid-19 than we do now,” Mongkul said.

There are many restaurants in Siem Reap that offer similar cooking classes to foreign tourists, but the difference lies in the choice of recipes, the language and teaching ability of the chefs, and the amount of knowledge they have to explain the stories behind the dishes, that they cook.

“In other places, some of them use inexperienced coaches and the language used in their explanations is sometimes not very fluent, but we do a lot of research,” said Mongkul.

At Changkran Khmer Restaurant, one of the dishes that foreign guests are most interested in is the Angkrang Fried Beef or Ant Fried Beef, which the chef is happy to teach about and explain the origin of the unusual main ingredient.

“It’s popular. Some of the guests never knew anything like this. Some guests are afraid to eat it and some guests are dying to taste it. At my house there are trees and ant nests nearby, so we explain the reality to them and they understand,” he said.

Outside of Cambodia, many people are not familiar with Khmer cuisine and the number of Cambodian restaurants abroad is relatively small compared to other local cuisines such as Thai or Vietnamese cuisine.

Khmer cuisine has a millennia-old history that has influenced its neighbors just as it has been influenced over time by interactions with countries like China and India. Today’s Khmer cuisine has also recently received some influences from France, which had colonized Cambodia for a period of 90 years.

Chef Mongkul, who loves Khmer food, said that a key to many Khmer dishes is the use of peppers and garlic and that they tend to be simple dishes with something special. He noted that traditional Khmer cuisine dishes have a long history and it can sometimes be difficult to recreate old recipes.

“Although we have a lot of international food experience, we like to eat Khmer dishes ourselves, and when we opened the restaurant we researched which Khmer food is popular and what we can recommend to foreign guests.

“We want to promote our Khmer food to foreigners. We have some authentic dishes, original dishes. We don’t sacrifice our Khmer flavors, we just decorate them to be beautiful,” Mongkul said.

Besides serving Khmer food, the chef always comes out from the kitchen to meet guests and offer a warm and hospitable experience alongside the great food.

“Mostly I come out to meet her and say hello. We want to make them feel comfortable and happy when they are with us, because both Cambodian and European guests usually like it when someone comes out and chats,” he said.

Most tourism businesses were affected by Covid-19 in Siem Reap, but about 46 percent of the closed businesses have now reopened in line with the partial return of foreign tourists, said tourism ministry spokesman Top Sopheak.

At Changkran Khmer Restaurant, most of the cooking students come from countries like Canada, USA, UK, France and Australia or regional countries like Singapore and Malaysia and neighboring countries like Thailand.

Mongkul said he expects the global situation of Covid-19 to continue to improve and he emerges from the pandemic more confident than ever about the future of his business and the future of tourism in Siem Reap.

Share.

Comments are closed.