A few years ago I booked myself in for my first holiday cooking class ever. The
city was Phnom Penh and although an incredibly charming place, learning about
its past can be a rather grim lesson given its starring role during the Khmer Rouge's gruesome reign. I thought a cooking class may help redress the balance and serve as a happier introduction to the Cambodian capital.
I was right.
Tucked away in the streets behind the National Museum, the Cambodia Cooking Class turned out to be a surprisingly fun way to begin my trip to the country.
The morning began with a visit to the local wet market where we learnt about some of the more exotic ingredients used in Cambodian cooking (like fishwort - a mint-like herb that adds a fishy taste to your salad, and salt eggs - eggs that have been aged underground in salt until they reach a gelatinous consistency). We watched frogs and tiger fish being carved up (the more squeamish may wish to give the meat and fish market a miss) and discovered what went into the ubiquitous spice blend called kroeung that makes its way into many Cambodian curries (essentially a mix of dry spices like cardamom, star anise and cloves, along with ginger, galangal, fresh turmeric, garlic, shallots, lemongrass and kaffir
The rest of the morning was spent pounding the afore-mentioned kroeung with wooden pestles, stuffing and frying delicious ube (purple yam) springrolls and making very pretty versions of the quintessential Cambodian dish - fish amok - with bright, blue skies filled with rain-gorged clouds forming a perfect holiday-in-South East Asia backdrop.
I was hooked.
The next year it was the turn of Vietnam and a cooking class once again found
it's way onto my itinerary in the gorgeous town of Hoi An.
The Red Bridge Cooking School class also began with a market tour - marked this time by an acquaintance with delights such as flying fish (and the not-quite-so-delightful scent of barrels of festering fish sauce!). A boat trip up the Thu Bon river deposited us at the Red Bridge Restaurant - the site of the cooking class - where we made Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, banh xeo (Hoi An's popular
savoury pancake) and an egg plant gravy, and learnt to fashion vegetable decorations that looked like badly drawn versions of the ones created by the instructor. This was followed by the highlight of the afternoon - eating the results of all our hard work :)
Next month I hope to be heading to Bali and I'm planning to once again squeeze in a cooking class into my rather short four-day trip. The plan so far is to try the Paon Bali Cooking Class - less highly recommended than the Bumbu Bali course, but one that seems to be a better fit in terms of both, time and budget. A market visit (if we choose the morning class), a short introduction to Bali's rice growing rituals and a chance to learn (and eat!) upto eight indigenous dishes - all for 350,000 (approximately US$37) sounds like a pretty good deal to me :)
If anyone has done the same class - or any other they'd highly recommend in the Ubud area - do let me know. And for those of you thinking of trying your hand at a Bali cookery class in the future, look out for a Paon Bali post in a few weeks :)
All this Earth Hour chatter last weekend got me thinking about the magic of dining sans electricity. From desert barbeques and full moon parties (and I'm not talking about the notorious Goan or Thai variety) to candle lit dinners on the beach, here are my top three meal-time memories that would make any Earth-Hour enthusiast proud:
Barbequed chops and burgers in Oman
There's nothing quite like getting lost on deserted roads, having to steal wood from an abandoned construction site and building a campfire from scratch to work up an appetite. Whether the beach, the rocky summit of Jebel Shams or the sandy wadi beds, barbequed meals hastily prepared by firelight and handy headlamps in Oman rank among my favourite outdoor meal memories. Pack an icebox with premarinated lamb chops and beef patties (they'll last a full day of driving even in the height of summer), stock up on the mustard, ketchup, mayo and buns and don't forget a box of matches!
Full Moon Festival in Hoi An
Ravers expecting the drug and trance-fuelled Full Moon parties of Goa and Thailand may be disappointed; I was not. Every month on the 14th night of the lunar calendar, Hoi An shuts off its electricity for a few hours and the sleepy town transforms into a fairyland of floating lanterns, candlelit restaurants and moonlit streets, with traditional games, music and hand-rowed boat trips down the river offering the only forms of entertainment. Pick a table by the river, order a drink and some cau lau and enjoy Hoi An at its bewitching best...
Rum pancakes on the beach in Goa
True, you probably won't be sitting in complete darkness but turn your back on the coconut trees strung with fairy lights, face the sea, let your feet sink into the cool sand and watch the moonlight catch the crest of the waves - there's no better way to spend an evening in Goa than with dinner at a beach shack. Finish off your meal with a flourish and order a flaming rum-soaked pancake. The waiters are generally generous with the booze and will weave through the tables with your pancake spewing blue flames for some extra drama in the dark.
It's no secret I pick my holiday destinations based on what the country in
question brings to the table, quite literally. I have to confess though, besides food I have one other source of influence that plays an almost equal role in helping me choose where to go next. Books.
While travelogues feature quite heavily in my literary diet, it's often great fiction that gets me thinking about packing my bags and heading to places I never would have considered visiting before.
Apart from adding new places to my holiday wish list, some of my best-loved novels have also led me to - or heightened my interest in - great bars, cafes and restaurants around the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
Casa Botin - Madrid, Spain
Described as "one of the best restaurants in the world" in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
If you read this in a Hemingway novel, wouldn't you want to try it out for yourself?
"We lunched upstairs at Botin's. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."
- Jake, The Sun Also Rises,1926
More than 80 years on, the place is still going strong and has been for quite a while (Casa Botin has another claim to fame which will probably merit another mention in this blog at some point). The roasted suckling pig was as tender as I imagine it must have been in Hemingway's day, to have earned such high praise, and the wine - not rioja alta but syrupy Pedro Ximenez - was very sweet and went excellently with the pork. The upstairs dining room is a cheerful tiled room and a pleasant place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. And although I didn't visit it, my brother-in-law (who did) told me the exposed brick dining hall downstairs is also a great spot to grab a meal.
The Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the cafes where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
I remember glancing through an early interview with J.K Rowling when I first
started reading the Harry Potter books. It pictured her seated by a big window
at The Elephant House with a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle. I knew then
that if I ever went to Edinburgh, that was a cafe I'd definitely visit. I'm no Harry Potter nut - although reading this blog series I did in 2007 may give you that impression. It was work, I swear! :) - but I am enough of a fan to have wanted to see the place where this strangely gripping saga first took shape. The cafe is a bit of a nerdy writer's haunt which made it even more appealing. Some of the tables have drawers underneath that contain all sorts of fascinating scraps - poetry scribbles, badly drawn pictures, bills... I loved it! And it isn't famous-for-the-sake-of-being-famous either - The Elephant House was voted the best coffee shop in Edinburgh so you can be sure you can grab a nice cuppa when you drop in.
Leopold Cafe - Mumbai, India
Played a starring role in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Leopold Cafe (or Leo's as we always called it) was a favourite even before I heard of Shantaram. As a student in Mumbai, this is where I went on lazy Sunday afternoons for a big plate of fried rice after a matinee show at Regal, or for drinks and dessert before a late night film. Leo's is one of the oldest Irani-cafes in Mumbai and despite being the site of one of the 2008 terror attacks, I was pleased to have seen it as busy as ever when I visited Colaba Causeway a couple of months ago. It has the true faded charm of an old-school traveller's hangout, complete with whirring ceiling fans suspended from long rods, wooden furniture that has seen better days, eager gap year students exchanging travel tips and leather-skinned veterans nursing midday beers. The food is not the best, but the hearty portions and the atmosphere more than make up for it. The upstairs bar is generally darker, drunker and probably closer to the sort of place where anyone who read the book would picture underworld deals being done, but for a true taste of Colaba charm, dine at Leo's at street level.
M Bar - Hotel Majestic Saigon, Vietnam
Rooftop bar of the hotel where Graham Greene wrote the first draft of The Quiet American
My favourite book of all time, I challenge anyone who reads it not to want to
visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (the old name just sounds so much more romantic and truer to the era in which this melancholy novel is set). While the
Continental Hotel got more than a few mentions in the book, it was at the Hotel
Majestic - also on Dong Khoi street (the oft mentioned Rue Catinat) - that Greene did most of his writing. The grande dame perched on the street corner is still pretty impressive and its rooftop M Bar is one of the best places in the city to linger over a cocktail. (Or in my case a mocktail, as I was on pretty heavy meds when I paid it a visit, after a bout of what was initially thought to be malaria, then dengue fever before finally being downgraded to a particularly nasty flu bug). Even without the help of a glass of something to lend a rosier glow to memory, the panorama of River Saigon and the city spread along its banks is not one I'm likely to forget any time soon.
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE