Now, I don’t want to sound like your typical booze-loving, twenty-something Australian girl (because I promise I’m not) BUT, I think I may have discovered the most amazing cocktail course in the world, right in the cultural hub of Siem Reap.
One humid Cambodian night in the heart of the wet season, Moe and I jumped on board a local Tuk Tuk on our way to a Khmer cocktail course we’d read about online. Hundreds of reviews had assured us that one night’s visit to a low-key bar called Asana would force us to see cocktail crafting as an art-form. We were naturally curious, so off we went with the expectations of creating your sub-standard mojitos and cosmopolitans.
When we arrived at Asana, we entered the low door of an enchanting wooden establishment with low-lighting and a tropical atmosphere. We were somewhere just outside the popular pub-street precinct in downtown Siem Reap, tucked away in a charismatic courtyard accessed by two narrow back-alleys. We were guided towards a table as they started to set up the course for us. I could smell fresh mint and citrus hanging in the air and the seductive croones of old jazz singers vibrated around the bar. It was an enticing setting and paired with the humidity I suddenly felt adventurous,care-free.
Not long after we’d finished our first pre-course drink, we were guided to a high bar table by a friendly, allusive young local girl called Lala. She had a charming smile that immediately made me want to be her best friend. She asked us where we were from, and made the accustomed comments about Moe’s overgrown stubble (apparently they don’t grow beards in Cambodia). She had a sing-song voice enough to send anyone into a trance. As we sat down at the high bar stools I was overwhelmed by the colourful produce laid in front of us. There were fresh herbs piled up high on a plate ranging from mint, lime, basil to ingredients I had never encountered before. It was a herby delight for the eyes. Surely, all this fresh goodness wasn’t for the cocktails? It looked as though we were about to create a raw feast.
As Lala started to introduce the ingredients for our first cocktail, the Asana Sling, her light, airy voice was laced with passion. By day she was a student at the university and by night she was making money to support her family at a local cocktail bar, teaching tourists like ourselves the art of crafting a masterpiece out of vibrant local produce. As she demonstrated how to make the Asana Sling, her hands moved effortlessly around the ingredients, combining them together with ease and finesse. There were a few ingredients I had never seen before, and she cut up a piece of Sombai Galangal Tamarind for us to try. It had a unique taste. We poured in shots of gin, cherry brandy, grenadine syrup and pineapple juice. It was a sweet and daring mix. I watched as Lala consumed the cocktail with ease and wondered how such a slight woman could keep up with the pace every shift.
As the night progressed, we moved from one cocktail to the next and the room started to take on a comfortable shape. The laidback tones of Ella Fitzgerald lingered in my ears. Nothing we made tasted alcoholic; all was a delight for the tastebuds bursting with flavour. Far too easy to drink. I copied Lala’s moves as she prepared the Ginger Mojito for us, momentarily worrying about the amount of raw brown sugar she was spooning into the drink.
“This is not like your sugar Rosie,” she said to me smiling. “This is good for you.”
I laughed, finding that hard to believe. I used the provided mortar and pestle to crush the juice out of fresh mint and ginger. The smell of the ginger was enticing; it was much more alive than the kind found in Australian supermarkets. I regretfully lumped in two large spoons of raw sugar along with twenty mils each of white and brown rum. Then I topped it up with soda water, added crushed ice, stirred it around and took a sip. I can honestly tell you now that it was the most flavoursome drink I’d ever consumed. The flavours combined perfectly to create the best mojito in the world. I haven’t been able to replicate the taste since despite many home attempts.
As we worked our way through the Green Lemongrass cocktail and Little Sweet, Lala delicately told us about her life with the kind of abandon accomplished by someone accustomed to delving out tidbits of her life to complete strangers. She told us of how she wanted to move to a bigger city to study and how she was having an unrelenting affair with a much older man. From her words I could tell she was looking for more out of life. She was fascinated by our un-married situation in Australia and with a cheeky smile she told us in vivid detail about the handsome features of her lover; a family friend. She looked young and innocent at 22 to know so much about it all.
Throughout the night we tried new herbs; everything from raw tumeric (which I’d never tried before) to wild ginger. At the end of the night, Lala let us select our own cocktail and I chose the fiery Ginger Red Chilli, jam-packed with enough spice to awaken my tastebuds all holiday long.
Meanwhile Lala laughed at our ignorance and quizzed us about our life in Australia. She was perhaps the most charming local I’d ever met while travelling. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to come back every night to hear her vivid yet carefree accounts of her life in Siem Reap.
After several shots of local Cambodian specialties, she waved us goodbye with a smile on her face. On our way out we ran into a rowdy group of Australian women waiting for their turn.
“This is our fifth time back here!” They told us. “We love Lala”
As we hailed down a Tuk Tuk outside in the humid dark night, I could see why this experience was so popular. It was the combination of amazing fresh herbs and the absolute charm of Lala that kept people utterly enticed all night long. I hoped, somehow, I could return and be swept into Lala’s world all over again.
If you happen to find yourself in Siem Reap, Cambodia don’t hesitate to pay a visit to Lala at Asana where you’ll find the best cocktails you’ve ever had. I promise.