When I was in Cambodia last September, I took more than a passing interest in the food. In between sitting down, chopsticks in hand, to gorge myself on its robust flavours, I would read up on the cuisine of this fascinating country in my guidebook or on the internet. The same sentiment kept recurring. In between mouthfuls of spicy fried rice with pineapple and seafood, creamy coconut and papaya shakes, stewed beef with pineapple and tomato, banana flower salads, black sesame ice cream and succulent spiced fish steamed in banana leaves, I would read the same words:
"Cambodian cuisine isn't as sophisticated as its Thai or Vietnamese neighbours."
Which, me being a PhD student and all, got me thinking about definitions and objectivity. What does it even mean yotsay a cuisine is 'sophisticated' or 'not sophisticated'? Who decides these arbitrary definitions? Moreover, does anyone have the right to dismiss something as nuanced and sprawling as an entire country's gastronomic heritage with the word 'unsophisticated'? Issues of authority aside, sophisticated is an entirely relative term; food cannot simply exist in isolation as 'sophisticated' without a point of comparison.
Cuisines are complex beasts, each one carrying within itself a vast array of dishes that will inevitably vary in terms of their sophistication. Not all French cuisine is fine dining and Michelin madness, for example - they also have the much-loved croque monsieur, which I think you could argue is fairly unsophisticated, in that it essentially comprises carbs, fat and more fat. While Japan has the highest proportion of Michelin stars in the world, Japanese cuisine also features what is perhaps the simplest meal known to man: a bowl of earthy miso soup.
Comparing Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine (I've never been to Thailand but I cook and eat a lot of Thai food and I have been to Vietnam), I really cannot fathom this completely thoughtless dismissal of Cambodian cooking, nor can I comprehend the authors' definitions of the word 'sophisticated'. For a start, there is a lot of overlap between these three cuisines. They all feature staple ingredients such as lime, coconut, lemongrass, chilli and garlic. They are all based around small amounts of meat or fish, and plenty of rice or noodles. Fragrant soups feature heavily, as do spring rolls in various guises.
Some of the best food I've ever eaten was served to me in Cambodia. I am particularly in love with their 'national dish', amok, which involves steaming fish in a fragrant 'custard' made with coconut milk, spices and eggs, often wrapped in a banana leaf. The fish stays moist and delicious, enriched with the spices and softened by the coconut that surrounds it. I also loved a stir-fry of chicken, tomato and pineapple which hit the spot on a sickeningly humid and exhausting day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. In the same vein, few words can express the delicious and satisfying nature of sticky rice cakes filled with gooey banana, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled so that the outside of the rice turns crunchy and caramelised while the inside is sweet and gooey.
Wash those down with a pineapple and coconut shake from a street stall, perhaps, or visit one of Siam Reap's chic modern ice cream parlours for flavours including durian fruit, lemongrass and 'four spice'. At the market you can pick up fluffy steamed buns filled with egg, meat and vegetables for less money than a bottle of water in the UK, while various street vendors set up stalls at night and offer cheap and cheerful fried rice and noodle dishes.
My experience of Cambodian food (which was limited to a mere three days in Siam Reap - not enough!) was thrilling, satisfying, nourishing and a complete adventure. Sophistication, or lack thereof, is irrelevant.
Since that memorable trip, I've been experimenting with Cambodian food in my own kitchen. I quickly discovered that the backbone of many Cambodian dishes is kroeung(don't ask me how to pronounce it), a spice paste used in the same way as Thai curry pastes - fried at the beginning of cooking until fragrant then mixed with other ingredients before further cooking.
Kroeung is a generic term for a spice paste, so there is no real 'standard' version (just as with Thai pastes), but my Vietnamese/Cambodian cookbook uses the same version for its recipes, so I started with that. I've tweaked it a little bit to result in something I'm perfectly happy with, adding a little more of flavours I particularly love (think lemongrass and lime leaf).
Kroeung is easy to make. You basically put everything in a blender and blitz it up to form a coarse paste, flecked with vibrant marigold from turmeric (fresh if you can get it), scarlet from chillies, green from shredded lime leaves, and pale yellow from the lemongrass and galangal. If you haven't used galangal before, try and track it down at an oriental supermarket - it's a pale, woody root with a similar peppery flavour to ginger, but sharper and more astringent. Ditto lime leaves - the dried ones in the supermarket are not worth bothering with; try and find frozen leaves in oriental supermarkets, which defrost almost instantly and are ideal to keep on hand for curries - the flavour they impart is just incredible. I've listed substitutions for some of the more exotic ingredients, though, should you be unable to find them.
I'm sharing this with you because there are a few Cambodian recipes due to appear on this blog over the next few weeks and months, and this recipe is the backbone for all of them. If you don't want to wait for those, you can try my Cambodian aubergine curry (it's amazing), or get creative - use kroeung as the basis of a Thai-style curry, simply adding some coconut milk, a splash of fish sauce to season, a little brown sugar, some shallots and the vegetables or meat of your choice.
Kroeung (makes enough for 2-3 curries, about 300ml):
- A 2-inch piece fresh galangal (or fresh ginger), peeled
- a 4-inch piece fresh turmeric (or 2 tsp dried turmeric)
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 lemongrass stalks, tough bits removed
- 2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 10 lime leaves (or zest of 2 limes)
- 2 hot chillies
- 1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp shrimp paste (or Thai fish sauce)
- 3 tbsp flavourless oil, such as rapeseed or groundnut
Method: put everything in a blender and go crazy. Store the paste in the fridge or freezer.
Banana flower salad with chicken and sweet-sour dressing