One of my absolute favorite comfort food is chicken curry and rice. Whenever I travel for extended periods of time from home, the first thing I want to eat when I get back is curry chicken and rice. While not fancy, to me that means home.
Anthony Bourdain has said it a million times on his programs, but it bears repeating: a $6 plate of curry and rice can be much more satisfying—and memorable—than a $75 dinner at whatever hyped restaurant the fooderati says you “need to try” this month.
The food of Cambodia is wonderful and has a long history. The country’s food culture, while not on the world map, is a rich amalgamation of French and Chinese cuisines as well as that of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodian cuisine includes Khmer indigenous dishes, as well as cooking that was influenced by the cuisines of these countries. The most prevalent influences in recent times have come from Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodian cuisine, which itself has distinctive regional variations, is often compared with Thai cuisine, but there are notable differences.
It is common to find a mixture of spicy, sour, pungent, and salty dishes across a Cambodian table, whereas Thai cooking is more about achieving a balance of flavors within the bowl. Roots such as taro, turmeric and ginger are much more prevalent in Cambodian food than Thai. Cambodian food is also not as hot and spicy as Thai food, though Cambodians especially love to use the spicy herbaceous curry paste called kreung as the basis of many dishes.
The last fifty years have been a tumultuous time for Cambodia’s national cuisine. It was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, the radical militia that took over the country in the mid 1970’s and aside from burning cookery books – considered bourgeois- killed an estimated two million citizens. After, economically depressed, Cambodia fell into the shadow of neighboring culinary heavyweights, Thailand and Vietnam. It is now in the midst of a comeback. Pushed along by a handful of chefs keen to highlight the uniqueness of its scope and pantry, dishes like somlar kari saek mouan – Cambodian chicken curry is making its comeback.
Cambodian cuisine vs. Khmer cuisine
First of all, let’s clarify two terms that often cause confusion. Why do some people say “Cambodian cuisine” while others say “Khmer cuisine”? Are they different?
No, “Cambodian cuisine” and “Khmer cuisine” are the same thing. Before Cambodia became the Kingdom of Kampuchea (the official name in English is the Kingdom of Cambodia), it was preceded by the mighty Khmer Empire which gave the country and the world Angkor Wat.
While English speakers call the nation Cambodia, the locals refer to it as Kampuchea. The word “Khmer” refers to the ethnic people and culture. In modern usage however, Khmer is often used to describe in general the people, their native language, culture, and cuisine.
Cambodian food is a charming combination of strong and vibrant flavors. Cambodians like to make sure that there is a little of the salty, the sour, the sweet and the bitter in every meal.
There are various Cambodian kari dishes made with a spicy sauce similar to the Indian sauce that the Western world knows as curry. While the Cambodian kari uses many Indian spices, it also includes local (non-Indian) ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and galangal.
As with Thai cuisine, coconut milk rather than yogurt is used for the Cambodian kari dishes.
Cambodian Curry is still very obscure among the many curry recipes. When people think of curry, the first thing that comes to their mind is either Indian curry or Thai curry. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both although they are quite different in taste.
Compared to Thai curry, the coconut flavor isn’t overpowering, and there’s a balance of flavor between the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and shallots. I love how the ingredients just combine together to make Cambodian curry uniquely different from Thai curry in both taste and aroma. Yet unfortunately, Khmer curry is still obscure and you wouldn’t find many restaurants in North America that offer this deliciously creamy and fragrant curry.
Traditionally, Cambodian chicken curry is a very labor intensive and elaborate process. Since there’s no refrigerator in the Cambodian rural area, kroeung paste is made first (every day), and then fresh coconuts are halved, shaved, and freshly squeezed to get all the coconut cream. The cream is then boiled for an extended amount of time until aromatic oil is separated from the cream. In the rural area of Cambodia, chicken curry is not an everyday dish, as preparation is a long process, but it is nevertheless, very popular for special occasions and celebrations such as Boun Pchum or the Cambodian New Year.
Most Cambodian households in the rural areas have coconut trees, and potatoes grown in their front yard or backyard, and usually keep their own livestock; including several chickens which they raise from little chicks. Economically, it’s money smart, they don’t have to go out and spend money, and is absolutely practical, as chicken (and their eggs) are available to them when needed. There’s nothing fresher and better for you than organic chicken from your own backyard — if you can catch it!
Another great thing about making Cambodian chicken curry recipe from scratch is the actual use of real coconut cream and fresh turmeric. You’d be surprised at all the health benefits of coconut cream, along with turmeric and its anti-inflammatory benefits. But that is what makes Cambodian food delicious; all of its fresh ingredients (kroeung) that were made each and every day with a mortar and pestle.
What is kroeung?
Kroeung, the Cambodian curry paste, along with prahok (fermented fish paste), is one of the distinctive signature ingredients in the Khmer kitchen. Flavoring everything from soups to stir-fries, its characteristics are a source of immense pride for a good Cambodian cook.
Kroeung, literally translated into “ingredients”, is a staple spice in the Cambodian household, and each family has their own favorite kroeung recipe. Some may prefer more lemongrass, less galangal or more turmeric, and some like their kroeung on the spicy side, while others forego the runny nose and sweat-inducing chili peppers. Regardless of the variation of ingredients, kroeung is always prepared in the same way; by slicing all ingredients into finer pieces, and throwing them into a mortar and pestle, pounding away until sweat droplets begin to form on your brows. In Cambodian household, kroeung is the first thing you learn how to make, as it is a prominent ingredient in Cambodian cuisine.
But are the characteristics of the kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia?
Yes and no. The base ingredients for the curry paste are common in Thai cooking — not surprising considering the shared history of the two countries, but it’s the use of turmeric in the standard base curry paste of Khmer cooking that sets it apart.
One thing that sets kroeung apart from Thai curry pastes is that there is no chili pepper in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric which is often sold fresh in markets and already chopped finely. You then add the required garlic and shallots when you’re ready to finish the paste.
This goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts.
What are the various types of kroeung?
There are actually several curry pastes that are regularly used in Cambodian cooking; red (kroeung kraham), yellow, and green.
Some pastes have a specific use, while others, such as the yellow paste, are used as a marinade for meats, stir-fries, stews and soups, and for amok, the famous Cambodian steamed fish “soufflé”.
Southeast Asian curries are nothing like their Indian cousins. This particular curry is red, which is no indication of spiciness because it is actually quite mild. This type of curry is a blend of many different herbs and spices which are worked down to a paste. Chicken is stewed in it to the point of absolute tenderness along with some chunks of vegetables. The dish is served with rice or noodles. If you’ve never experienced a southeast Asian curry, this would be a great one to try.
- 2 stems lemongrass , finely chopped
- 3 teaspoons fresh turmeric
- 3 shallots , chopped
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 (2-inch) piece galangal, diced
- 4 leaves kaffir lime , deveined and finely chopped
- Zests of 2 kaffir limes , sliced into thin strips
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 dried red hot peppers , rehydrated, seeded and drained
- 1 fresh red hot pepper (or more to taste)
- 2 large chicken cutlets , cut into large chunks
- 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons red curry paste (kroeung kraham)
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar , reduced to powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup coconut cream
- 3 cups boiling water
- 2 red onions , sliced
- 5 yardlong beans , cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 eggplant , cut lengthwise into 2-inch pieces
- 1 sweet potato
- 1 large white potato
- In a mortar, crush the combava zests and leaves until smooth.
- Add the red peppers, lemongrass, galangal and turmeric and pound until obtaining a dark red color.
- Add the garlic and shallots and pound for a few minutes until you get a perfectly smooth texture.
- In a large pot over medium heat, pour the oil. Add the red curry paste.
- Sauté for 1 minute over medium heat, stirring constantly.
- Add the chicken and half of the coconut cream.
- Stir well and cook for 2 minutes, always on medium heat.
- Add the potatoes, yardlong beans, eggplant and onion. Mix well.
- Add the boiling water, remaining coconut cream and season with fish sauce, shrimp paste, salt and palm sugar.
- Stir to combine everything.
- Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.
- Then simmer over low-medium heat for 15 minutes.