Learn the secrets of Khmer cuisine at Changkran Cooking Classes from S Reap
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 and serve Khmer food to contribute to the promotion of Cambodian culture to foreign visitors. they are making their gradual return to Siem Reap.
Not only that, Mongkol plans to go further and teach Khmer cooking classes. He said the purpose of the classes was partly to provide an entertaining experience for tourists after visiting the famous ancient temples nearby, but also to help spread awareness and love of Cambodian cuisine.
“Most Europeans and foreigners come to Siem Reap and after visiting Angkor Wat, they try to find fun activities to do in our province, like taking a jeep or motorbike to get around or watching the [Phare Ponleu Selpak] circus, but that can still leave a lot of unscheduled time so they can use some of that free time to take cooking lessons 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 food 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 that to make a good living as a cook he would need additional skills that complimented what he could do in the kitchen and he started by learning English from the pagoda monks who all loved the cooking of Mongkol.
“In 2003, I had the chance to go to the newly opened Paul Dubrule School in Siem Reap. It was the start of my career as a chef,” he recalls.
After his studies, he started working in high-end three and four star hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Then, in 2008, he started working as a private chef on a luxury cruise ship in Greece.
“It was hard work because I was alone in the galley and had to be on board cooking for small groups of tourists who were there for trips of one to two weeks,” he recalls.
After only 10 months working on the ship, he returned home and worked as a chef at a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, where he cooked mainly Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
In 2012, he took a job at the luxury resort Amannyara in the Turks and Caicos Islands before eventually returning to Cambodia to set up his own restaurant.
Founded in 2018, Changkran Khmer Restaurant is located in a traditional Khmer wooden house in a quiet location in town which gives it a cool yet private feel.
The traditional wooden house – with its high ceilings, spacious bedrooms and large dining room – is also where Mongkol plans to hold his cooking classes for large and small groups of guests.
“To teach them how to cook, we’ll use the actual menu and allow them to choose whatever they want, as if they’re ordering it rather than learning how to make it,” he said.
The 3-hour cooking class also includes a shopping trip to a nearby market for ingredients, background information and commentary on Khmer history, explanation of ingredient sources and popular beliefs about them.
“We teach each item, like where they come from and where they are grown, because we are still a nation of farmers and our people like to know that. We talk about vegetables, the different ways vegetables can be eaten, how to choose the best ones, and the benefits,” says Mongkol.
Back at the restaurant, guests will have their own work tables and cooking utensils and there will be assistant chefs on hand to provide assistance as needed, making it easier for inexperienced cooks and beginners. They can expect to learn how to cook snacks, entrees and desserts.
“In the cooking class, there are three things to learn: a salad or a starter and then we make the main course and then another dessert,” he said.
The end of the lesson is always pleasant because the students can eat what they have prepared, especially for some guests who have
have never spent much time in the kitchen or picked up a paring knife and can now take special pride in knowing they have what it takes to be good cooks.
“They cook and then eat it there and enjoy their own food. I think many guests, when they receive a bib apron and chef’s hat and successfully cook with our instructions, they feel refreshed and happy,” Mongkul said.
Foreign guests have written many positive reviews on Tripadvisor for Changkran Khmer Restaurant and in turn have guided many other tourists there to learn how to cook.
“Honestly, my house is small inside and the entrance is narrow. Thus, it is difficult for local visitors who travel with their cars. For travel agencies using tourist bus, it is also difficult for them to park and walk for a long distance because the road is narrow,” Mongkul said.
Word of mouth and social networks have made him a hit and many customers staying in starred hotels in the region come to eat in his restaurant.
“We are close to the big hotels where many customers come to stay and they are all good customers and when they come to relax they see our store and are very interested in trying it out,” he said.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Khmer restaurant’s cooking classes have also welcomed local visitors as organizations or businesses have started booking with him to learn about teamwork through activities culinary.
“They come to do team building. We have lots of groups that want to cook with us, usually like 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 over a month, which was not easy financially.
“Then, after reopening to welcome guests in August for cooking classes only, we had 10 groups of guests. A group of two people, then four people, six people, sometimes eight people. Now, in comparison, before Covid-19, we actually had fewer customers than today,” Mongkul said.
In Siem Reap, many restaurants 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 they cook.
“In other places, some of them use inexperienced trainers and the language used in their explanations is sometimes not very fluent, but we do a lot of research,” Mongkul said.
At Changkran Khmer Restaurant, one of the dishes that foreign customers are most interested in is Angkrang Fried Beef or Ant Fried Beef, which the chef likes to teach and explain the source of the unusual key ingredient.
“It’s trendy. Some of the guests, they had never heard of food like this before. Some guests are afraid to eat it and some guests are eager to try it. At my place, there is trees and ant nests nearby, so we explain the reality to them and they understand,” he said.
Outside of Cambodia, Khmer cuisine is not well known to many people and the number of Cambodian restaurants abroad is relatively small compared to other cuisines in the region such as Thai or Vietnamese cuisine.
Khmer cuisine has an ancient history that dates back thousands of years and has influenced its neighbors just as it has been influenced by interactions over time with countries like China and India. Khmer cuisine has also received recent influence from France, which colonized Cambodia for 90 years.
Chef Mongkul, who loves Khmer cuisine, said one of the keys to many Khmer dishes is the use of peppers and garlic and they tend to be simple dishes with something special. He noted that traditional dishes in Khmer cuisines have a long history and it can sometimes be difficult to recreate ancient recipes.
“Although we have a lot of experience in the field of international cuisine, we like to eat Khmer food ourselves and when we opened the restaurant, we researched the popularity of Khmer food and what that we can recommend to foreign customers.
“We want to promote our Khmer cuisine to foreigners. We have authentic dishes, original dishes. We don’t give up our Khmer flavors, we just decorate them to look good,” Mongkul said.
Apart from serving Khmer food, the chef always comes out of the kitchen to meet the guests and provide a warm and hospitable experience in addition to great food.
“Most of the time, I go out to meet them and say hello. We want to give them a sense of comfort and pleasure with us, because usually Cambodian and European customers like someone to hang out and chat,” he said.
Most tourism businesses have been hit by Covid-19 in Siem Reap, but around 46% of those that closed have now reopened in line with the partial return of foreign tourists, the Tourism Ministry spokesperson said, Top Sopheak.
At Changkran Khmer restaurant, most of the cooking students come from places 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 Covid-19 situation to continue to improve and that he will emerge from the pandemic feeling more confident than ever about the future of his business and the future. future of tourism in Siem Reap.