Regularly Used Khmer Food Ingredients
Asian shallots are small with a pinkish-purple colour. 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 speciality stores like T&T Supermarket. Choose a firm, large flower with an even colour 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 flavour of the banana leaf make a difference to the texture and flavour 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 (O. basilicum), 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 flavour salads and soups. Like most basil, 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 flavour will not be the same.
Chilli peppers (capsicum) come in many shapes, sizes and colours. Popular and widely used in most Asian cuisine, specifically, Thai, Sichuan, Hunan, Indian, Cambodia and Indonesia, they didn’t exist in Asia until the seventeenth century when the Spanish and Portuguese introduced them to the region. Asian cuisines were nonetheless already spicy, but the main ingredients used before the seventeenth century was black pepper and ginger which are native to Southeast Asia. You can use any sort of hot pepper you like, however, a favourite of Cambodians, Thais and most of Southeast Asia are the small ‘bird-eye chilli peppers. Fresh green and red finger-length chillies and serrano peppers are moderately hot, whereas tiny red, or green bird’s eye chillies are very hot. The green pepper has an immediate bite to it, whereas the heat of the red comes on much more slowly. Both are flavorful, but the preferred colour of choice is red. Red bird-eye chilli peppers can be left out. They won’t spoil but will dry into the best possible dried peppers. The green one, however, will rot if you leave them out (which is why in most pho places, red bird-eyes chilli peppers are usually accompanied with fresh herbs instead of the green pepper). The green version is best stored wrapped in paper towel, sealed in a plastic bag and refrigerated.
You can use any sort of hot pepper you like, however, a favourite of Cambodians, Thais and most of Southeast Asia are the small ‘bird-eye chilli peppers. Fresh green and red finger-length chillies and serrano peppers are moderately hot, whereas tiny red, or green bird’s eye chillies are very hot. The green pepper has an immediate bite to it, whereas the heat of the red comes on much more slowly. Both are flavorful, but the preferred colour of choice is red. Red bird-eye chilli peppers can be left out. They won’t spoil but will dry into the best possible dried peppers. The green one, however, will rot if you leave them out (which is why in most pho places, red bird-eyes chilli peppers are usually accompanied with fresh herbs instead of the green pepper). The green version is best stored wrapped in paper towel, sealed in a plastic bag and refrigerated.
Dried chilli peppers, known as mate phlao krim in Cambodia, refer to mild finger-length chilli peppers, with their seeds removed, salted and then dried. They must be soaked before crushing, to remove any residual salt.
The most heavily consumed fresh herb on our planet, Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) are also known as Cilantro or Chinese parsley. Coriander is a member of the carrot/parsley family and a native of the Middle East. In China, around 200 B.C. it was eaten like a vegetable because it was regarded as an antidote to stomach upset and was used to treat ptomaine poisoning. A premier herb in China, all of South-east Asia, India, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, it is now also enjoyed in European and North American cuisine, quickly becoming a western staple. As such, it is available fresh at most supermarkets. In Cambodian recipes, the roots, stems and leaves are all used in cooking.
Aside from its medicinal properties, coriander is loved due to its ability to heighten other flavours in a dish, while cutting into any unpleasant flavour excess. With chameleon-like abilities, it flavours is changed depending on what it is cooked with. People who claim to hate coriander will like it in one dish while wanting to pick it out in other dishes. They have a strong flavour, so when used fresh, they are used sparingly to top off soups and salads.
To keep them fresh longer, purchase corianders that are sold with roots. Store it in the refrigerator with the roots or stems in water and a plastic bag, loosely covering the leaves.
Daikon radish is a large, crisp, white-fleshed radish, with a sweet and clean flavour. 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
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
Fish paste, or prahok, is one of the most widely 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 flavour 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, in Europe as galingale and as rumdeng in Cambodia. A cream-colored white root with zebra like marking and pink shoots, its distinct flavour is used to make kroeung.
Popular in South-east Asian cuisine, it was also famed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, used as a spice, dried and grounded. It lost its popularity and disappeared from Western cooking when the heavy use of spices went out of fashion in the eighteenth century.
Although thick slices of galangal can be found in Thai soups throughout North American Thai restaurants, in Cambodian cuisine, it is usually pounded fresh in a mortar with ingredients such as lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and chilli peppers to make kreoung, a thick flavourful paste used in many Cambodian recipes. Believed to have the ability to curb nausea and settle the stomach like ginger, grated galangal with lime juice is used in almost all regions of Southeast Asia as an all purpose tonic.
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.
Besides salt, what’s the one ingredient used in all Asian countries? Ginger. So, it’s not an exaggeration to say you can’t make Asian food without ginger. And it’s easy to see why. It has remarkable culinary value. Its clean spiciness cuts the fishiness of seafood, making it tastes fresher. It suppresses any hint of rankness in meat such as liver and works harmoniously with strong ingredients such as garlic. And last but not least, it cuts the richness of fatty dishes.
Although many consider ginger a root, it is actually a tropical rhizome native to South-east Asia. Cultivated for so long, and widely used by many countries, no one can say for sure where it originated. And for centuries, it was valued in all Asian countries for its medicinal value: it aids in digestion, combat the common cold, alleviate nausea, and stimulate the appetite for both food and sex.
When buying ginger, look for the heaviest, and hardest rhizomes. Ginger that has been sitting out for too long will be wrinkled and light in weight. For a hotter or more flavourful ginger, get a more mature rhizome by checking where the knobs were broken. The longer the rhizome has grown before it’s harvested, the more fibrous it becomes, and the more fibrous you will see at the knob. When making Cambodian Ginger Fish, I like to pick the more mature rhizome, as I prefer the extra flavour and heat.
Ginger will keep fresh for a week if left out sitting on the counter. To keep it fresh longer, it should be placed in the vegetable crisper section of the refrigerator, kept inside a plastic bag with a paper towel to absorb any moisture, which can cause it to mold. Never freeze whole ginger as it will turn it to mush, rendering it useless for recipes that require its texture.
Green mangoes are usually not left to ripen, but are used when still green, either in a salad or sprinkled with salt and chilli, and eaten fresh. They can also be used to tenderise 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. Native to the Spanish, Jicama was first introduced to the Philippines, then raised and brought over to Malaysia by Chinese farmers. Chinese use Jicama almost exclusively as starch whereas Vietnamese will use it in spring rolls to give it texture. In Cambodia, it is eaten in salads, tossed into soup, or fresh with a mixture of salt, sugar and chilli peppers. The larger specimens are sometimes used to make clear, flavourful stocks.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
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 colour. 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.
Lesser galangal, also known as Chinese keys or krachai in Thai, is a rhizome which looks like a bunch of yellowish-brown fingers. It is known as kchiey in Cambodian and is specifically used as a spice rather than a vegetable. It is often used in num banh chok salaw prahar and gives Amok, a classic Khmer dish, its special flavour.
The Chinese used them medically, but throughout most of Southeast Asia (except Cambodia), they are used whole, tossed into stews and curries along with other vegetables.
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.
Mints (Mentha spp.) A close cousin to basil, mints are widely used in Cambodian cooking and also throughout most regions of Southeast Asia. However, the variety that is mostly used is a mild fuzzy-leafed variety of tropical spearmint (M. arvensis). It is usually sold in bunches of foot-long stems with 1 1/2 inch leaves and is available throughout Cambodia and Southeast Asia. They are also found in most Asian supermarket in North America. However, if you can’t find them at your local Asian supermarket, you can purchase the darker ‘curly leaf’ mints, one with 1/2 to 3/4 inch leaves. They are a regular in most supermarket and can be used interchangeably to season Cambodian food or any South-east Asian salads and soups.
Palm sugar, or known as skoa tnaot is a rich caramel flavour 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
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 flavour and aroma are 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.
Sdao or Bitter Khmer Leaves
Sdao is the tender shoots, leaves and flowers from the Neem tree. In India, products made from neem trees are used medicinally for over two millennia for its anthelmintic, antifungal, antibacterial, antidiabetic, antiviral properties. Although toxic in large quantities, small amounts of Neem oil is used for healthy hair, to improve liver function, balance blood sugar levels and detoxify the blood. Dried neem leaves are placed in cupboards to prevent insects from eating clothes, and when burnt repels mosquitos.
Neem trees thrive in sub-tropical climates, making it common throughout South and Southeastern Asia. In Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, the young, new shoots and flowers parts of the neem trees are eaten, used as vegetables, usually sprinkled over salads or eaten blanched with a dip. These more tender bits also contains the same medicinal aspects as Neem oil or dried Neems, providing the same blood purifying, antifungal, antibacterial and other amazing health benefits.
In Cambodia, Sdao is very popular amongst the older generations —its bitter, astringent taste is well loved, especially when matched with the heat, savoury and acidity of many of Cambodian food. Teuk Kreung (Cambodian fish dipping sauce) and sdao is a favourite pairing amongst many older Cambodians.
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 (caramelised stew, usually pork and egg).
Tamarind is known as ampeul in Cambodia. The tamarind pod is light brown in colour 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 chilli condiment, or ripe as it is. The seeds are also ground and added to various sauces. Ripe tamarind pods are available at speciality 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 colour. It is often used in kreoung, curries and stews. Fresh turmeric has a very strong flavour. Be careful when handling fresh turmeric as the juice stains.
Turmeric is available in most Asian grocery stores labelled either as turmeric or Indian ginger. When buying turmeric fresh, look for rock-hard rhizomes. To keep turmeric fresh longer, it is best kept in the refrigerator wrapped in a paper towel, placed inside a plastic bag. 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 or Lotus
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.
Before using them, remove the fine white film on the outside of the stem. Once peeled, slice them quickly and immediately toss them into a bowl of water as it discolours much more quickly than apple or banana blossoms. When shopping for water lily stems, look for ones that are free of bruises. If the sections are uncut, the root will keep in the vegetable crisper for two to three weeks. Unfortunately, water lily stems are not available in all Asian grocery stores, but celery makes an okay substitute.
Water spinach, known as trokuen 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 salads, 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 flavour and is delicious in stir-fries and soup. Winter melon is available year-round in Chinese markets and speciality produces stores.