Petite, charming and memorably named, Vandy Van is in charge of a cookery school with a better location than most. Attached to the Amansara hotel at Siem Reap, close to the extraordinary temples of Angkor, she runs a kitchen in an old wooden Khmer village house cooled by the wind coming off the nearby lake. And it was here that I learnt how to cook Cambodian food.
Even with the breeze, the heat was exacerbated by the traditional charcoal we were cooking over as I chopped garlic, turmeric, galangal, chillis and kaffir lime leaves finely enough to meet Van’s approval. Soft and refreshing spring rolls; chicken curry with potato and pumpkin; a salad of banana blossom, chicken and roasted peanuts; and stir-fried water spinach with garlic were the fruits of our joint labours.
Van, an exemplary and patient teacher, came from the countryside to be a student at the Sala Baï Hotel School, set up in 2002 by the French NGO Agir pour le Cambodge, which has so far trained more than 600 disadvantaged Cambodians to work in their new hospitality industry. Her own teacher was the far fuller figure of Joannès Rivière, a Frenchman who has cooking and restaurants in his blood.
Rivière, 32, hails from Roanne, south-east France, where his parents used to supply the renowned Troisgros restaurant with vegetables. Although he came to Cambodia to train others, he switched roles to cook at the Hôtel de la Paix. During this time he met Carole Salmon from Brittany, then the director of the local French Cultural Centre. They married and earlier this year embarked on two time-consuming adventures: as parents of a baby son and as proprietors of their own restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak.
Their restaurant takes its name from a temple located 500m away and is no more than a five-minute tuk-tuk ride from the town centre. Formerly a private home, it has outdoor seating in the garden; an upstairs area where diners sit on the floor; and a much cooler ground floor where a vase of unopened lotus flowers reflects the restaurant’s understated elegance.
A turmeric margarita and a pomelo and fresh ginger martini got the evening off to great start. Two menus – one four course at $17 (£11) and the other $24 for five courses – demonstrated classic French technique, though the cuisine is Cambodian.
Even more exciting was the balance and acidity that Rivière is achieving with so many exciting local ingredients. Slices of water lily alongside grilled pieces of frog meat; rice flakes formed into a pancake with thin slices of the local sausage and a tamarind sauce; tiny prawns in a fish consommé with slices of ultra-tart star fruit; and a fillet of freshwater croaker fish, skewered and quickly grilled on a plate of edible flowers.
With coffee came glasses of thin slices of pomelo, banana and tamarind dried and then coated in sugar. Dinner for three with a bottle of French wine (naturally) – a Côtes du Rhone 2009 from Gabriel Liogier – came to $100.
Rivière subsequently explained that his mission was to stay as close to the French practice of shopping in the market for that night’s menu. Two mornings later we set off on his motorbike for Psaa Cha market, one of the oldest in Siem Reap.
Before we plunged into its bustling byways, Rivière laid down a few guidelines. Cambodians don’t like the flavour of saltwater fish, he said, much preferring the freshwater fish and prawns that come from Tonlé Sap, the huge lake and river system nearby. Staples of French cooking – carrots, garlic, onions and potatoes – would be imported as they do not grow in Cambodia at all. Instead, Rivière would be looking out for gourds, water lily stems, green tamarind, lemon grass and pumpkin.
What Rivière had not revealed, however, was quite how effectively he has mastered the Cambodian language, complete with its 42 vowels. There was a continual stream of banter as Rivière poked his way round the goods, offering me pieces of salads and fruits I had not eaten before and prefacing each introduction with whether this one was, or was not, one of his chosen suppliers and why.
Proof, if any were needed, that the chef may choose to leave France but a strong element of France will always reside within him.
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Sala Baï Hotel School
Cuisine Wat Damnak