While staying with my mother in Cambodia for a few months, I’ve learned to appreciate one of her favorite Cambodian food, a traditional breakfast called nom banh chok –rice noodle served with fish gravy and freshly foraged wild grown Cambodian vegetables (some of which does not have an English name), eaten with a few chilli peppers on the side. Like all our morning breakfast in Cambodia, it’s served at room temperature, in a plastic bag, delivered to our house. No, we did not make the call for delivery. Every morning, our local vendor would take her bike, filled her basket to the brim with all sorts of breakfast food and wild grown vegetables, and bike around the area serving anyone who’s hungry –she’s just a loud holler away.
In rural Cambodia, Num banh chok or rice vermicelli noodle is still not automated, and most processes are done by hand with a stone mill. They are then sold at the local market. Vendors would come early in the morning to purchase the noodle, which is then sold to the local residents.
Khmer Food Recipe: The Making of Num Banh Chok
The rice noodle making process is long and arduous, although appreciated by every household in rural Cambodia. Rice is first boiled until soften and then ground into a wet dough with a heavy stone mill. Once all the rice is ground, the wet dough is placed into a large cloth bag. Heavy mill parts are placed on top to squeeze out excess water. This is the beginning of the fermentation process. When the soaked rice is left to drain and fermented, Lactobacillus and Streptococcus species of lactic acid fermentation goes to work to protect the starch granules from spoilage -creating that distinct sourness in handmade noodle, which is clearly missing in automated noodles we eat here in North America. Once done, the result is a firm, dry but still sticky flour.
In order to form this dry firm dough into the rice noodle loved by Cambodians, the flour must then be softened in boiling water before it can be transformed into a smooth batter. After sprinkling a small amount of water into the dry dough, and slamming it a couple of time into a tree stump to soften it up a bit, it is then placed on a banana leaf-lined bamboo tray with long handles and lowered into a pot of boiling water.
After approximately 30 minutes, it emerges rock-hard and starchy-slick to the touch. It is now ready to be placed in a deep rock mortar to be pounded with a pestle-worked with leg power. As the dough is beaten on all sides, it gives off a strong sour, and yeasty scent.
After approximately fifteen minutes, the dough is transformed from a rock-hard, floury ball to a smooth, elastic dough. This final dough form will then be beaten until stiff peaks can be formed, and is then placed into a metal noodle mould or cylindrical dispenser made with holes at one end. The dough is squeezed through the holes, from which it falls in strips into boiling water. To ensure that the noodles do not clump together, an assistant stirs and lifts them from the boiling water into a pail of cold water, where they become less starchy. The noodles are then placed on a tray and folded neatly, portioned for serving. It is a tedious and long process. To see just how labour intensive the noodle making process is, read this article here.
Khmer Food Recipe: The Origin of Num Bahn Chok
Cambodians named their rice noodle, num banh chok, but that same name is also given to many dishes made with those particularly appetising rice noodles served during breakfast, and throughout the day in Cambodia. Num banh chok somlar prahar, is usually eaten for breakfast and is sold by local vendors every morning. It is the perfect dish to eat in warm weather. Soft, warm rice noodles are topped with a cool fish gravy and refreshing, crisp raw vegetables such as cucumbers, water lily stems, banana blossom, and fresh herbs, such as mint, and basil. For dinner, or during a celebration, num banh chok samlor kari is eaten instead; warm rice noodle is topped with red curry made with freshly ground yellow kreoung, free-run chicken and fresh vegetables from the local market.
Throughout Cambodia, there are many regional variations to the standard num banh chok somlar prahar. Kampot favours theirs with locally-produced sweet dried shrimp, coconut cream, fish sauce and peanuts, whereas Siem Reap has its own version, made with much more garlic and coconut milk than the original, usually served with a sweet fish sauce called tirk trey pha’em. However, no matter the region, it always features the same main ingredients: fish (a must-have breakfast ingredient in Asia), and yellow kreoung.
Historical records suggest that rice noodles originated during the Qin dynasty in 259 – 210 B.C. When people from northern China invaded the south, their cooks had to adapt to the region. Northern China preferred noodles made from wheat flour. As they were not accustomed to eating rice, their northern cooks tried to prepare “noodles” using rice, thus inventing rice noodles. Over time rice noodles and their processing methods have been introduced around the world, becoming especially popular in Southeast Asia.
However, if you speak to any Khmer locals in Cambodia, they will tell you a different story. They will weave you a popular Khmer folk legend about Thun Chey —a celebrated revolutionary and scholar — and how he featured the dish. In the folk legend, Thun Chey was exiled from the Khmer Empire to China by the Khmer king who was scared of his power and popularity. In China, broke and alone, he was forced to resort to making a living selling num banh chok. The delicious noodle quickly gained popularity with the Chinese, until even the emperor of China had heard about it. The emperor requested that Thun Chey brings the noodles to the palace, and so he did. While the emperor was tasting the delightful dish, Thun Chey did an act strictly forbidden in China, he snuck a look at the emperor’s face.
The xenophobic Thun Chey declares that the emperor of China looks like a dog as opposed to the Khmer king, who looks like the moon. Outraged, he is promptly thrown in jail. He cunningly managed to be released and was sent back to the Khmer Empire soon after. Most Cambodians are familiar with the story of Thun Chey, and many will say that this is where China got the idea for rice noodles.
No matter the origin of num banh chok, many will agree that it is deliciously fresh, and plays a large role in Cambodian breakfast culture. Try out this culturally rich, and deliciously fresh recipe today.
Khmer Food Recipe: How to Make Num Banh Chok
For this particular Cambodian food recipe, I will use my mother’s favourite freshwater fish, mud-fish. Here, I chopped off the head (gosh, that sounds awful). There isn’t much useable meat in the head, but it is great for flavouring broth. It is sold as “Mudfish”, or “Snakehead”, in Asian supermarkets, and is one of the most important food fish in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Both wild and farmed mud-fish are sold live in Asia and will stay alive for several days in a basket of wet straw. Mud-fish flesh is pink or nearly white depending on your cooking method, with a light, attractive flavour. When cooked, the flesh is tender, fine grained and does not flake apart, making it excellent for stews, curries, and soups.
I purchased mine at T & T Supermarket frozen, so it was already pre-cleaned. However, if you want to buy it fresh, cleaning can be a bit of a hassle as it is a little different from most fish -there are a lot of innards running from the head all the way to the tail. However, what I do like about this fish, other than the flavour, of course, is the skin —it has almost no shrink, no strong flavour, and the skin can be easily removed using a long knife. For this recipe, I do not recommend removing the skin, as it adds extra flavour to the stock.
Like many other Cambodian food recipes, Num Banh Chok’s main ingredient, besides mudfish, is Kroeung. I recommend making kreoung ahead of time, portioning them out into 1/2 cup portions and freezing any amount you won’t be able to use up in two weeks. FYI, I use about 6 cups of kreoung in a month. Although I cook other food; Filipino food for my boyfriend, European/Italian food for his parents (one of whom is Caucasian), I still end up cooking a lot of Cambodian food for myself, and my sister (who loves somlar machu kreoung).
Besides yellow kreoung, the other main ingredient that is definitely not optional, and is irreplaceable, is rhizome -or finger-roots in English, Khchiey in Cambodia and Krachai in Thai. Unlike ginger, turmeric, and galangal which are commonly used throughout the world, Khchiey is relatively obscure and is mostly used for medical purposes in some Asian countries. When fresh, Khchiey has an earthy, peppery, and much milder flavour than ginger and galangal. Fresh khchiey can be purchased at some Asian supermarket market, however, if you live outside of South East Asia, this rhizome, in its fresh form, can be difficult to find. If you can’t find a fresh version at your local Asian supermarket, a good alternative is a pickled version —usually bottled in glass cans. Before using pickled khchiey, make sure you soak it in water that has been sweetened with sugar, this will help get rid of the preservative taste.
- 1 whole mud fish, cat fish or tilapia
- 2 whole chicken bone
- 1 cup kroeung paste
- 10 rhizomes or finger roots
- 1 tbsp fermented mud fish (pahok)
- 1/2 tbsp of sugar
- 1 tbsp of chicken mix
- 1 1/2 tbsp of fish sauce
- 1 1/2 tbsp of salt
- 2 tbsp of roasted peanut optional
- 1 cup of Coconut Milk
- 4 litre of water
- 1 stalk of lemongrass
- 1 package fine rice vermicelli noodle
Make kreoung using this yellow kreoung recipe. Portion them out into 1/2 cup portions. Keep 1 cup for this recipe, and freeze the rest.
In a large pot, bring 4 litre of water to a boil, along with a stalk of lemongrass (crush the lemongrass to bring out more of its flavour). Once boiled, add chicken bone and let it cook for 10 minutes or until the chicken is done. Clean the mud fish or whatever fresh water fish you want to use for this recipe, and place it into the boiling water. Do not throw away the fish head, as it gives the most flavouring to broth. Let the chicken and fish simmer for another 5 - 10 minutes.
Once the chicken and fish is cooked, take them out and de-bone them both. Keep the fish meat, and the chicken meat separately. Do not get rid of the broth. It will be used later.
Chop the rhizomes into thin slices, and then pound them in the mortar and pestle with kreoung, roasted peanuts, bird eye chilli pepper, and garlic. I usually do mine in half portions since I have a smaller mortar and pestle, and then combining them into a bowl.
Pound the chicken and 1/2 the yellow kreoung/rhizome mixture together to infuse the flavourings. Pound until the chicken is completely crushed, and then add the fish meat, and the remaining kroeung/rhizome mixture. Pound some more to really mix it up. Fish meat is really soft, so it doesn't need much pounding to crush. If you don't have a large mortar and pestle, you can do this in portions. Once, everything is mixed and crushed into a course mixture, place it into a large bowl.
Then add knorr chicken mix, fish sauce, salt, sugar and coconut milk into the bowl as well, and mix thoroughly. Let stand for at least 10 minutes to let all the flavour infuse.
In the large pot with broth inside, put 1 tablespoon of pahok liquid into the pot and let it come to a boil. You add pahok before any other flavouring ingredients in order to lessen its strong scent. Once its boiled, add in the chicken/fish mixture. Let it simmer on low for at least 10 minutes, adjusting the broth to taste with salt and sugar. That's it. You've just made somlar prahar. Now onto the noodles.
Make fine rice vermicelli noodle: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add in a pack of rice noodle, and let it cook for 4-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside a large bowl filled with ice cold water. Once the noodle is cooked, and the texture is to your taste, pour out the water, and place the noodle into the cold bowl of water to stop its cooking progress. Start taking out handfuls of noodle and shaping it into serving portions -arranging it nicely into a bowl.
To serve, take 1 serving of rice noodle and place it into a plate. Add whatever fresh vegetables or wild greens you prefer, and ladle some somlar prahar on top.