Asian shallots are small with a pinkish-purple color. Shallots add a slight sweetness with a hint of garlic. They are used in many Khmer dishes, usually thinly sliced in a variety or salads or deep-fried and used as a garnish.
Banana flowers are the unopened male flowers of the banana plant a—hung at the end of a clump of developing bananas. The hearts of these flowers, with their purple petals stripped off, are a popular salad ingredient in Cambodia. Fresh, canned and dried banana flowers can often be found in specialty stores like T&T Supermarket. Choose a firm, large flower with an even color and check that the outer petals are not wilted. To prepare the flower for cooking, remove the coarse outer petals to reveal the creamy white heart. If bought fresh, and is not immediately used, soak in cold water or rub with lemon or lime juice to avoid discoloration. To use, simmer the cut heart in plenty of lightly salted water until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain, cool then pull out and discard the hard filaments inside each cluster of yellow stamens.
Banana leaves are used to wrap food for steaming or grilling. The moisture, scent and flavor of the banana leaf makes a difference to the texture and flavor of the food. They are usually sold in the frozen section of your local Asian supermarket. Before using to wrap food, the leaves should be softened for easy folding, either by soaking in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes or briefly heated on low heat in the oven.
Basil used in Cambodian cooking comes in two types. Holy Basil is known as merap prey. This variety, which can reach several feet in height, has a unique scent that is a combination of sweet Italian basil and geranium. Holy basil is a common ingredient in Cambodian cuisine—it is often added at the end of the cooking in stir-fry dishes or to stuffing. It can be found in most Asian grocery stores, and may be substituted with Thai basil. Thai Basil, known as chie nieng vong in Cambodian has a dark green leaf. Its aroma is similar to Italian basil, with a slight aniseed tang. Thai basil is used frequently in Cambodia to flavor salads and soups. Like most basils, it should only be added to the dish at the very last moment, otherwise it will lose its fragrance and texture. It will keep well in the refrigerator for a few days, or to make it stay fresh longer, lay thin layers of basil leaves flat in between sheets of paper towel inside an airtight container. Fresh coriander leaves (cilantro), or sweet Italian basil can be substituted, but the flavor will not be the same.
Bitter Khmer Leaves, also referred to simply as bitter leaf or Sdao, is often blanched before use to reduce its bitterness, and is usually eaten fresh with dips.
Chili peppers come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Fresh green and red finger-length chilies are moderately hot, whereas tiny red, green or orange bird’s-eye chilies are very hot. Dried chili peppers, known as mate phlao krim in Cambodia, refer to mild finger-length chili peppers, with their seeds removed, salted and then dried. They must be soaked before crushing, to remove any residual salt.
Coriander leaves are also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley. Available fresh at most large supermarkets, the roots, stems and leaves are all used in cooking. They have a strong flavour, so they are used sparingly in soups and salads.
Daikon radish is a large, crisp, white-fleshed radish, with a sweet and clean flavor. It is usually used in soup, and can be eaten raw, or cooked. The skin needs to be peeled or scrubbed with salt before using.
Dried Cambodian fish, known as trey niet, is filleted fish that has been cured in salt and sugar and then dried. It has a delicately sweet and salty flavour. Dried fish must always be lightly fried before using. It is available in Asian groceries, but if necessary, it can be replaced by salt cod that has been soaked to remove some of the salt.
Eggplants used in Asia are generally of the slender, purple-skinned variety, 15–20 cm (6–8 in) long. They are mild with a soft texture.
Fish paste, or prahok, is one of the most widley used and distinctive ingredients in Cambodian cooking. It is fish that has been preserved in salt until it breaks down into a paste. It has a very strong fishy, cheese-like smell that many Westerners find unappetizing, but it adds a depth of flavor to Cambodian food. Prahok is available in Asian grocery stores and can always be replaced by its Thai equivalent nam prik ph.
Fish sauce, known as teuk trey, it is a thin, salty sauce that is made with the leftover juice of prahok. Fish sauce is available in most large supermarkets or Asian grocery stores. Its Vietnamese (nuoc mam) or Thai (nam pla) equivalents can be substituted.
Galangal is also known in English as Thai Ginger and as rumdeng in Cambodia. A cream-colored white root with a distinct flavor, it is used to make kroeung, or curry paste. Galangal is very fibrous and therefore must be sliced very fine, cross-wise, before using. It is available in Asian grocery stores and in some supermarkets and will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. It freezes well, either whole or chopped.
Green mangoes are usually not left to ripen, but are used when still green, either in a salad or sprinkled with salt and chili, and eaten fresh. They can also be used to tenderize meat.
Green peppercorns are perishable and are available packed in brine, or water in jars, or freeze-dried. The green peppercorn is the soft unripe berry, and is less pungent than the riper black and white peppercorns.
Jicama, known in Cambodian as pek koa is a root vegetable with milky white flesh. In Cambodia, it is eaten in salads, soup, or fresh with a mixture of salt, sugar and chili peppers. The larger specimens are sometimes used to make a stock or soup.
Kaffir lime leaves are known as kroy saoch in Cambodia. They are dark green, glossy and are used very much like bay leaves are used in Western cooking. Kaffir lime leaves are added to curries or, with the central vein removed and leaves sliced very finely are added to salads and stir-fries to give the dish a wonderful fragrance, interesting texture and vivid color. Fresh, frozen and dried leaves are available in Asian grocery stores. They will last for several months in the freezer. If you can’t find fresh leaves, you can use dried for stews, soups and other long-cooking dishes, though you should use twice as many dried leaves and remove the whole leaves before serving.
Krachai, also known as Chinese keys or lesser ginger, is a rhizome which looks like a bunch of yellowish-brown fingers. It is known as kchiey in Cambodian and is specific to Cambodian cooking. Its aroma is sometimes compared to lavender. It is often used in curry pastes and gives Amok, a classic Khmer dish, its very special flavor.
Lemongrass, known as slok krey in Cambodia, is a fibrous stalk with a white bulb at the root end and flat leaves at the top. The tough outer layers are usually removed and the tender white stalk is chopped or sliced and used in kreoung, curry pastes, marinades and soups. The leaves can be used to make lemon-flavored tea. Lemongrass is available in some supermarkets and in Asian grocery stores. It keeps well in the refrigerator or it can be frozen either whole or chopped.
Palm sugar, or known as skoa tnaot is a rich caramel flavor sugar that is more complex than that of cane sugar. Palm sugar is made from the sap of the sugar palm tree, Arenga Pinnata. The sap is reduced to a syrup which is then dehydrated. Palm sugar is available in Asian grocery stores or health food stores. For an authentic preparation, bring the sugar to a boil with a little water to make a thick syrup very like the fresh alternative. You can substitute dark brown sugar, but only use half the quantity that the recipe calls for.
Pomelo is a citrus somewhat similar to grapefruit. It is greenish-yellow with a pink inner flesh. The pomelo is drier, sweeter and has a much thicker and tougher peel. It is eaten as a fruit or broken up for salads. Grapefruit may be used as a substitute.
Rice flour is made from ground long grain rice and is used to make dough and batter, mainly for desserts. Fresh rice flour was traditionally made by soaking rice overnight and grinding it slowly in a stone mill.
Rice paddy herb, or known as mô am in Cambodia has a pungent aroma and is used exclusively in soups, especially Cambodian Sour Soup. It is available in most Asian grocery stores and will keep for a few days in the fridge.
Sawtooth herb is also known as Mexican Coriander and as chi ana in Cambodia. Its leaves are long, with serrated edges. Its flavor and aroma is similar to coriander, but much stronger. The fresh leaves are used very often in Cambodian cooking, usually added to soups at the end of cooking or to salads.
Star anise, known as pka tian in Cambodia, is a dried spice that looks like an eight-pointed brown star. Each point contains a seed with a strong scent that is specific to this spice. Star anise is one of the ingredients for Khmer curry, as well as certain soups such as kaw.
Tamarind, is known as ampeul in Cambodia. The tamarind pod is light brown in color and can be quite long—up to 8 in (20 cm). The pod contains sour pulp and hard, shiny seeds. In Cambodia, tamarind is often eaten unripe (green) with a salt and chili condiment, or ripe as it is. The seeds are also ground and added to various sauces. Ripe tamarind pods are available at specialty Asian stores and sometimes in larger supermarkets. Tamarind pulp can also be bought separately and will keep for a long time if it is dried.
Turmeric, known as romiet in Cambodia, is a rhizome that looks like fresh ginger root, but is smaller and more orange in color. It is often used in kreoung, curries and stews. Fresh turmeric has a very strong flavor. Be careful when handling fresh turmeric as the juice stains. Turmeric is available in Asian grocery stores and keeps well frozen. Dried turmeric, often sold ground into powder, can be substituted.
Vietnamese mint (laksa leaves) is known as chi pong tia kon in Cambodia. It is sometimes also called Vietnamese coriander or hot mint, though it is not a member of the mint family. The narrow pointed leaves of this herb are green with light brown markings and its scent is very distinct, very acrid and peppery. In Cambodia this herb is mostly used in soups and salads.It can be found in most every Asian grocery store, and keeps quite well stored in the refrigerator.
Water lily stems, known as prolet in Cambodia, are white stems with a pinkish hue, and with channels running down them. They are used widely in Cambodian soups. Before using them, remove the fine white film on the outside of the stem. Unfortunately water lily stems are not available in all Asian grocery stores, but celery makes an okay substitute.
Water spinach, known as trokun in Cambodia is one of the basic ingredients in Cambodian cooking. It is a water plant with hollow stems and arrow-shaped leaves. The leaves are eaten raw in salad, or with a dip, and the stems can be chopped and stir-fried or used in soups.
Winter melon is a member of the squash family. It is also called ash pumpkin, ash gourd, or winter gourd. The white flesh has a mild flavor and is delicious in stir-fries and soup. Winter melon is available year-round in Chinese markets and specialty produce stores.