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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bringing the tastes of Cambodia to Fairfax

Annandale resident and author of the book " A taste of Cambodian Cuisine", Demaze Baker is teaching cooking classes each month on how to prepare traditional Cambodian meals.

Cooking teacher, author shares her passion for exotic cuisine
by Alexandra Greeley Special to the Times

Perhaps the least known of Asian cuisines, Cambodian food has been a rarity in the Washington, D.C., metro area. But cooking teacher Demaz Baker of Annandale hopes to change that.

According to Baker, no Cambodian restaurants exist in the District or its surrounding suburbs, making it a challenge for interested foodies to go out and taste the culture's traditional flavors. That doesn't make it impossible, though, says Baker, who is also an amateur chef and author of two Cambodian cookbooks -- such as "A Taste of Cambodian Cuisine," which is available on With monthly classes at the Arlington County Adult Education Center and a little patience, anyone can learn how to master the culture's sweet and savory flavors.

Although it shares many similarities with Thai cuisine, Baker says Cambodian cooking is "lighter and less spicy in taste," with less reliance on coconut milk and chilis.

A U.S. resident since the mid-1970s, Baker has held daytime jobs with the Department of Defense. But in her spare time, she has indulged her passion for Cambodian food by learning the traditional recipes from her homeland and then cataloging them in her two self-published cookbooks. This has certainly been a labor of love, for Baker admits she never learned how to cook as a child in her parents' home.

"I have always liked cooking, but I never learned it in Cambodia," she said. "My aunts are really the experts in Cambodian food. I even registered in cooking school when I was a student in Australia, but I only studied there for two months."

As a newcomer to the area, Baker longed for the sweet and savory delicacies from her native country. Finding no restaurant that offered the food she craved, Baker set about learning the basics of the cuisine by calling friends and relatives all over the world.

"I gathered recipes from whomever had the expertise," she said.

Top on her phone list were two friends in Los Angeles and others in France and Canada, but because Cambodians usually never write down measurements, reconstructing the recipes required experimentation and tasting.

After gathering stacks of recipes, Baker turned to trying them all, tasting what worked and discarding the rejects.

"This was a labor of several years," she said. "But now I know how to cook properly."

As a result, Baker wrote her first cookbook, "Cambodian Cuisine," in 1999 and issued her second, "A Taste of Cambodian Cuisine," in 2009. A full-color volume, the book is available online at and also at Barnes & Noble.

As a complement to her culinary hobby, Baker started teaching Cambodian cooking at the Arlington County Adult Education Center, offering a month's worth of classes each semester.

"I would teach once a week for the month," she said. After eight years of offering adult education classes, Baker decided to simply teach cooking in her own home. This switch has worked out well, she says, noting that many of her former students signed up and have now formed an informal cooking club, though all newcomers are welcome to join in.

Held one night each month, the classes require student participation supervised by Baker. Afterward, all sit down to a feast.

"A typical menu includes a main-course soup and two side dishes, one with vegetables and often one with fish," she said, adding that the usual Cambodian meal includes fish, since the Mekong River running through the country is a rich source of freshwater fish. There may also be a chicken or beef curry, which is a norm here in the U.S. but is a luxurious meal back home in Cambodia, where chicken and beef are expensive for the average household.

Participants learn three dishes per class, and classes cost $55 each.

Her students are so enthusiastic about Baker's food that they have been urging her to open a restaurant. After all, she notes, all her siblings own a restaurant in Quebec. But Baker's response is simple: No way, she says.

"In my opinion, for a small restaurant to be successful, it has to be run by family members," she says. "Besides, you have no other life if you own one."

For more information, contact Demaz Baker at www.Cambodian

Recipe: Saraman Chicken

Serves four

Demaz Baker explains that Cambodian cooking is very similar to Thai cooking, which is evident in this rich chicken curry. To simplify the long and arduous process of pounding ingredients for a curry paste, the basis of all Thai and Cambodian curries, Baker uses commercial curry paste, making the preparation of such dishes relatively fast. All ingredients are available in Asian markets.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons Masaman curry paste

one (13.5- ounce) can coconut milk

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons sugar or palm sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups pearl onions, peeled

4 to 5 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered

nHeat the oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the curry paste and blend well until it becomes oily. Scoop out the creamy part of the coconut milk (about ¼ cup), and stir into the curry. Add the chicken, and sear for about five minutes. Add ¾ cup water and the remaining coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, salt and pearl onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook 15 to 20 minutes more, or until the chicken is tender. Add the potatoes, cover and continue cooking until the potatoes are cooked.

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