When people think of curry, the first thing that comes to their mind is either Indian curry or Thai’s. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both although they are quite different in taste. However, my favourite curry has always been Cambodian curry. The fact that I was raised on it may be a small factor, but I think the main reason I love it so much is because compared to Thai curry, the coconut flavour isn’t overpowering, and there’s a balance of flavour between the lemongrass, kaffir lime leave, galagal, and shallots. I love how the ingredients just combine together to make our curry uniquely different from Thai’s in both taste and aroma.
Cambodian Curry in Khmer Cooking
The main ingredients in Cambodian curry are coconut, shrimp paste (kaapi), and kroeung. Shrimp paste or shrimp sauce, is a common ingredient used in most Southeast Asian cuisine. It is made from krill or fermented ground shrimp, mixed with a generous amount of salt. Kaapi comes in many form (sundried whole, sundried and packed into fist-sized rectangular blocks), but the one I am using, and what most Cambodian family use are the wet form, usually darker brown with a purplish/pinkish hue.
Kreoung, litterally 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, lesser galagal or more turmeric, and some like their kroeung on the spicy side (this person here), while others forego the runny nose and sweat inducing chilli 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 along your brow. In Cambodian household, kroeung is the first thing you learn how to make, as it is a prominent ingredient in Cambodian cuisine.
Cambodian curry, traditionally, is a very labour intensive and elaborate process. Since there’s no refrigerator in the Cambodian rurual area, kroeung are made first (everyday), 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. Most Cambodian household in the rural areas have coconut tree, and potato 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 more fresh and better for you than organic chicken from your own backyard —if you can catch it!
Traditionally for Cambodians, curry is considered special food and are usually cooked only for special occasion such as Boun Pchum, or Cambodian New Year. My mother used to wake up really early (5am) to make it from scratch, and it took her practically the whole morning, since she pretty much always cook for an entire army(not even exaggerating, its usually 10 servings or more). Since she made hers from scratch, she also spent a lot of time shaving old coconut, and squeezing the shaved coconut to get all the the milky cream from it. It was a whole ordeal. Maybe that’s why we only make it for special event 🙂 But, because she spends so much time, and put so much love into it, it always comes out amazing.
Another great thing about making it from scratch is the actual use of real coconut cream, and fresh turmeric. You’d be surprise 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 that were made each and everyday with a mortar and pestle (kroeung). Anyways, if you love Thai curry, you will definitely love ours, so give it a try! Of course, in this more modernized version of Cambodian curry for busy people, there will be no cracking, shaving and squeezing of coconut as we will be using the canned coconut milk.