WARNING! This post is graphic about food in open markets, and animals being used for food. I do not recommend reading this if you have a weak stomach or are sensitive about the process of an animal being prepared to eat.
I woke up this morning with the sinking sensation that I will never, ever have enough sleep. After days on end of 4-6 hours at best, I finally booked in about 9 solid hours of sweet, deep sleep last night.
Yet somehow, it didn’t quite satisfy.
Emma wasn’t feeling well and left breakfast early. I managed to wake myself up a little more in the shower, then nudged Emma to see if she was up for leaving — we were getting picked up for a cooking class soon.
“I feel nauseous. I’m going to stay here,” she told me.
I was feeling grumpy, in a foggy haze of trying to wake up, and briefly debated whether I wanted to go through a whole cooking class by myself. What if that was awkward? Would I really have a good time? I stared at the Emma-shaped lump under the covers with a frown.
Whatever. I threw my shoes on hastily and walked out to meet our guide.
I was whisked away in our van through a series of muddy dirt roads. Motorbikes and mopeds poured around us in waves, barefooted children ran outside of rickety houses, men and women alike were tending their shops, organizing items and cooking food under makeshift umbrellas.
We pulled up to an old building and stopped. A man with a furrowed brow and thick mustache seemed to be waiting.
There was some banter between the guide and the man. In a flurry of events and no formal introductions, he was in the car with us to make sure the driver knew where to pick me up later on. “Then I’ll take you to the market. Do you eat everything?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant at first. “I eat most things?”
“You like fish? If you don’t like fish we won’t make the fish meal.”
In my head I went through the whole story of how I used to hate all seafood, then I learned to like sushi, then I fell in love with salmon, and even more recently I’ve been learning to enjoy all manner of fish cooked in various styles. However, I chose simply to answer with, “Yes, I like fish.”
Moments later we were getting out of the car at what felt like an arbitrary stop.
We walked a little ways down the road, him leading the way while I trailed behind trying not to step in any puddles, clip the back of his sandals, or get hit by any of the motorbikes that loved to ride so close that you envisioned your certain death every time one passed.
Very shortly, we entered the marketplace. Rows of homemade tents were cobbled together low to the ground. Crouched under each were women and children, sorting and managing the goods sported beneath. Hundreds of displays of vegetables stretched as far as the eye could see: there were dried goods, fresh goods, all spread out on wooden planks, sitting in sacks, or simply on plastic wrap right on the ground.
I felt noticeably tall, as most of the people there only came up to about my shoulders and the tents were hung quite low.
Raw meat sliced into rudimentary portions were spread out on display, being handled by interested customers, picked up, placed down, and I couldn’t help but notice how many flies were buzzing around everything available to buy.
There were fully intact, dead, freshly plucked chickens splayed out for inspection about every fourth stall.
Having worked in the States in a restaurant before, I couldn’t help but think back to all of the health codes I’d ever learned being wildy violated at every turn. But, I wanted to enjoy my experience, so I pushed these thoughts aside.
I learned my cooking teacher’s name was Vannak.
We made a lot of short stops at different shops. He would pick out several vegetables, explaining what it was, how it was cooked, and often pointed out other interesting options available for purchase. He was curious which of them I had already seen before, and would give me alternatives to purchase when one or the other wasn’t available back at home.
I watched as they took freshly shredded coconut and pressed it into coconut milk, before bagging the white liquid for us.
We had amassed a small grocery bag of vegetables in addition to the coconut milk when we walked up to a woman selling fish. They sat in buckets, along with what looked like some kind of eel that was swimming in small circles. A pile of fish out in the open air were all still slowly moving their mouths.
She was moving one of the fish in the buckets when it wriggled away onto the ground. Again, I pushed thoughts of sanitation from my mind.
There was some seeming confusion before she picked out another fish, weighed it, and – after confirmation – attempted to place it on her chopping block. It escaped her hands again, flopping onto the ground in one last desperate plea for freedom.
She grabbed it firmly by the tail and successfully laid its head down on the block.
I felt a weird twist in my stomach as she used her other hand to pick up a heavy duty butcher’s knife. But, I told myself, if I was going to continue eating meat, I shouldn’t be so hypocritical as to turn my head the other way and ignore the process required to get it on my plate.
My eyes were wide open as I watched her then raise the knife and slam it down onto the top of the fish’s head. I thought, maybe that killed it. Now it doesn’t have to suffer more, surely.
It still seemed pretty alive as she laid blows again and again. She flipped it over on its back. The gills were still pulsing. She pulled at the gills and hacked away at the head, but left it on mostly intact.
Vannak was explaining to me about how they use all parts of the fish for eating so that nothing goes to waste, but I wasn’t really listening anymore.
I winced as I watched a small stream of blood spurt out.
I’m going to eat this, I’m going to eat this, I’m going to eat this, I was saying to myself in my head. This is what happens to fish when you eat them.
She deftly laid the fish flat on its stomach, slicing the fins off either side. Then went the fin from the tail.
She grabbed a small strange tool that sat next to her and began brushing it up and down the fish, which removed the scales. It was gruesome, there was a certain brutality to her quick, sure strokes.
The process to remove the fins from the underside and top required a more surgical process, slicing the fish open from either side of each fin to remove them in strips. There was some internal organ she pulled from the belly and snipped with her knife.
Thankfully, the fish seemed to have finally stopped moving. I hoped it had been dead much longer than I thought it had.
It looked very naked now.
She picked up a blue plastic bag and curled the fish into it. She offered it out to me. My gut was in knots but I took it anyways, although Vannak did check to make sure I was okay and offered to carry it instead. “I’m fine,” I said. I wanted to own up to this whole activity I was participating in.
We made a couple more vegetable stops, but otherwise made our way out of the market at this point.
It wasn’t too long before we were entering an old building three stories tall. The ceilings were again, low, and the walls were sparse on the way to the top floor.
I soon found myself on a patio with a table that looked ready for me to prepare food.
The class went very smoothly and was a lot of fun. I learned a little trick to peeling garlic (smash it first!) and other cutting techniques for chopping vegetables. I was thrilled to find out that I didn’t have to actually prepare the fish or any other meat beyond tenderizing the beef.
I started out by creating the coconut curry for the fish, then setting up marinades for the beef and chicken.
While we waited for the marinades to work their magic, I was shown how to cut and fold a banana leaf into a bowl shape to steam the amok in — keeping everything in place with toothpicks. I put the fish, veggies, and curry carefully into the leaf bowl. Then he helped me place it in an outdoor steamer that looked a lot like a BBQ grill.
After prepping the rest of the veggies and creating a chili paste — I was led inside to the stove where they had moved all of my hard work for cooking.
I was thrilled to finally learn how to properly use the utensils I’d seen used at our various stops through Cambodia so far! The pan heated up very quickly and I discovered I was able to imitate the movements I’d seen Cambodian cooks use with ease.
The technique of water to oil ratios were explained to me, and before I knew it I’d finished both the beef and chicken dishes. It was time to eat!
I have to say, I am ridiculously pleased with how my work turned out. Vannak said he was very impressed with how quickly and efficiently I was able to get all three meals finished. “It looks very good. And no one ever does it this fast,” he told me.
Chha Kroeung (Chicken):
Beef Lok Lak:
(My personal favorite!)
The chicken was a little too spicy for me, but all of it was absolutely delicious.
Before I left, I was given a cookbook of my own so I can recreate these meals and feed all of you delicious food when I come visit you again!
So, should you ever find yourself in Battambang, Cambodia, I implore you to check out Vannak’s cooking class for the experience of a lifetime.
To find more information, just look up:
Smokin’ Pot Restaurant