FOR ANY NUMBER OF REASONS, Ch’ngainh! Ch’ngainh! is the least popular cooking class in Battambang, Cambodia. One probable reason is that the name is basically unpronounceable. Another might be that it’s only two-years-old, and competing with local restaurants Smoking Pot and Nari’s Kitchen, which have years’ more reputation behind them.
That they have much catching up to do explains the earnest hospitality at Ch’ngainh, which means “delicious” in Khmer. We are picked up by its founder, Sambath, and, after a brief market visit for supplies, brought to his personal home kitchen, which is a large and dimly lit cement box down a dirt alley near the city centre. Their class costs only $10 a person, and they clearly need the money, which contributes to their eagerness to please. “We have a saying in Cambodia,” Sambath explains. “‘Tourism is a factory without smoke.'”
Sambath’s wife, the chef, who speaks little English beyond “one spoon” or “cut small,” clearly has an eye for efficiency, and immediately puts us to work peeling onions and slicing lemongrass. Sambath would later explain that she is the oldest of eight children, and spent her adolescence raising her siblings instead of going to school. She has trouble reading even Khmer script, but is a terrific cook and mother.
It is a quiet domestic scene. Their 14-year-old daughter mulls around on the couch behind us; their dogs, Cocoa and Busy, bark at strangers passing by. We are instructed wordlessly, led by example, shown the correct way to cut green beans and left to struggle at imitating her technique. We slice in silence for the first 20 minutes, the only sound coming from the mortar and pestle near the end, which she pounds like a metronome, grinding up lemongrass, onion, turmeric, lime leaves, garlic, and pastes of shrimp and chili.
Sambath himself lingers outside while we prepare the produce. He works with hired help and his teenage sons on the unfinished upstairs of his home. He bought this plot of land in 2002 with the $2000 he’d earned helping a German documentary crew film a short about Battambang; in 2007, he was finally able to build a new home, of cement and bricks, when he helped make a second documentary about the city’s famously kitschy bamboo train. But the housing crisis affected, apparently, even rural Cambodia; brick prices soared from 120 Riel apiece to 500. (About $0.03 to $0.12, which is a lot for a country where an average day’s salary is $5.)
Once the sun goes down, Sambath returns inside and turns on the room’s lone fluorescent bulb, which regrettably lights the room like a prison. We are ready to begin cooking. He lists the ingredients while we spoon them into the pots—one spoon sugar, one spoon peanuts, a ladlefull of oil, a pinch of salt. Chicken and freshly ground curry paste fall in next, doused with the coconut milk V had spent the last five minutes squeezing out from the bits of flesh. It all mingles and dances in the pot with taro, cabbage and cauliflower, their combined smells filling the room.
V has been stirring up a dish called fish amok, which, in the end, will become a small but utterly decadent meal of fish and vegetables steamed with coconut curry, wrapped in bowls of pinned-together banana leaves, topped with heaps of coconut cream and garnished by thin slices of carrot, red pepper and cilantro. The fist-sized delicacies are then placed in a large steamer and are piping hot until the end.
Spring rolls, Sambath’s personal favourite, end the night. We soak rice paper in a small bowl of water, line up bean sprouts, cucumber, sticky noodles, grated carrot and mint leaves and roll them together, dipping it in a homemade peanut sauce to eat. The freshness of each ingredient is invigorating.
We sit and chat when our bellies are full. Sambath offers us Cambodian rice wine from a plastic bottle, which tastes nothing like Korea’s milky stuff and much more like brutal whiskey. He tells us about his life as the youngest of seven children during the Khmer Rouge; how, as he grew up moving from city to city, his “head was all crazy.” He hated being forced to learn Russian, but was eager to study English.
“Tourism make me a better life,” he says, recalling the first tourist he ever saw in Battambang. She was a Swiss girl walking around with a heavy backpack under the midday sun, clutching a copy of Lonely Planet circa 1999. Men on the street saw her and shouted, Barang! Barang!, which once meant “French” but has since been appropriated to mean, generically, “white person”. Sambath pulled a U-turn on his motorbike and shouted, “Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Where are you from?”, which, today, is what every irritating tuk-tuk driver and his son will shout at tourists, but was, back then, an appreciated novelty. She was grateful to find someone who spoke English, and paid Sambath $6 to drive her around. He returned home to show his wife his wages, not in Cambodian Riel, but in dollars. They were ecstatic.
It changed everything. He took out a bank loan to buy a tuk-tuk and began approaching every tourist he saw. He met the German documentary filmmaker on the roof of a train, bought the land, built a house, raised the family of five. “I did not imagine this life,” he tells us through a broad and toothy smile. “I am very lucky.”