Lately I’ve been exploring prepared food containers of the refrigerator section at a my favorite Asian markets as well as expanding my understanding of Cambodian food.
The nearest Asian market to my house is Seng Hong Oriental Market, over on Old York Road. It is one of my favorite markets in Philly. I am always finding new things there, often things I haven’t seen since living in Isaan. Over this past summer I’ve seen items such as fresh tamarind leaves, and even a frozen “sour fish” (plaa som ปลาส้ม). I’ve already written a few posts on other finds here this summer, holy basil and long pepper. Certainly many more posts will be coming with items found here.
In the fridge section they sell little plastic cups with a yellowish-green chopped and ground paste for making Cambodian soups and/or dips. It is called kroeung គ្រឿង. See Wikipedia entry on this variety of pastes here. It is a base of flavors for several Cambodian dishes, and the version Seng Hong sells consists of chopped lemon grass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, tumeric and salt. At first I thought it must be meant for marinating meat before grilling. When I asked what to do with this they suggested I make a sour beef soup with it, and to top it off with holy basil. Seemed to me like a haphazard mix of things, but after reading up on the soup and this spice mix, I was inspired. I bought a few cups and spent some more time researching “Cambodian beef soup” recipes. After I got a sense as to what the key parts were, I felt ready to experiment. The key parts as I understand them are: the above basic kroeung paste, sauce from a funky fermented fish (prahok), and sauce from the flesh of tamarind fruit, followed by beef and selected vegetables of choice. My first try was with round green Thai eggplants, and Chinese celery. I also ended up using a lean beef cut that I boiled in my Guilin master stock for a few hours. The results were really wonderful, and La and I were instantly reminded of a stew in Isaan called aum อ่อม. It was perfect to eat with sticky rice. I was thrilled with the result, and La thought it was pretty good too. The use of holy basil, combined with the umami of the fermented fish and the sour of the tamarind really was a beautiful combination.
At the bottom of this page there is a recipe that mimics my second try at this dish, equally as pleasant, but this time using quick-cooking beef slices, eggplants, and napa cabbage.
Prahok ប្រហុក is a second key ingredient in many Cambodian dishes-here is a link to the Wiki entry). It’s one of those things that smells very wrong when you open the jar, but if you left it out of a dish, there really would be something important missing that would be hard to explain. Flavors come together with this ingredient, and that may be hard to believe if you’ve only smelled it out of the jar. This is, of course, a style of fermented fish. In Isaan cooking, the fermented fish plaraa ปลาร้า (aka badaek ปาแดก) is used in a similar way, in salads, dips, and soups. In the US, these two things are often marketed as the same product. According to Cambodians though, the “proper” version (the ones touted by food bloggers anyway) is the “Siam Reap-style” kind, the kind made without adding rice flour (i.e. the way it is made in Thailand). After some research I found an acceptable prahok, also from Seng Hong Market. From the Khmer on the label, ប្រហុកសៀមរាប, this product is “Prahok Siam Reap” (i.e. Siam Reap-style prahok). Unfortunately this message is nowhere in English or phonetic Latin characters. If you are looking for this but can’t read Khmer, ask your Cambodian shopkeeper. No rice is listed among the three ingredients: mud fish, water, salt. There are two kinds of this prahok, fish pieces in a jar, like the one I have above, and “creamy style” (i.e. boneless and pureed). I like the one with fish chunks, skin, bones and all, but if you use this, you have to boil a chunk in little water and mash it with a fork, much like the method for making a sauce from tamarind (explained below). A chunk of fish should yield 2-3 tablespoons of funky sauce, that should be strained before use in recipes.
A final key ingredient that I’ll discuss today is a juice made from sticky tamarind fruit. This is a very common ingredient in many dishes between Thailand and Cambodia, and it adds an interesting sourness to dishes. Many of the recipes online use a powdered, instant version of this, marketed by Knorr. I prefer the old school method, by ripping off a chunk of tamarind from the pulp block that it comes in (you can find this at most any Asian market), and covering that with some boiling water, letting it sit for about 10-20 minutes, occasionally mashing and poking it with a fork to make the flesh dissolve into the water. After that time the liquid will thicken noticeably. Spoon out the liquid into what you are cooking, whether it be papaya salad, or soup. See below for a step-by-step for this process:
Recipe: Sour beef soup with kroeung – samlor machou kroeung sach ko សម្លម្ជូរគ្រឿងសាច់គោ
Most recipes that I found during my research were in Cambodian or Cambodian-American blogs and instructional videos. It seems that the round, golf-ball-sized Thai eggplants were a pretty standard ingredient, either that or chopped water spinach (aka morning glory). See the bottom of the page for links to some of these blogs and videos.
The key flavors to this recipe are alluded to above: Kroeung, prahok, and tamarind. I give approximate amounts below, adjust according to taste.
- About 1/2 to 3/4 lb lean beef, to be slow cooked in large chunks in a spiced master stock (see next ingredient), or thinly sliced for quicker cooking. If using slow cooked chunks, cool and shred the fibers. This time I used slices for quick cooking
- 3 tablespoons spiced master stock, beef, or chicken stock (many Khmer-American bloggers instead suggest powdered chicken stock to boost flavor)
- 2-3 Tablespoons kroeung
- 1-2 Tablespoon strained prahok sauce OR “creamy style” prahok
- 1-2 Tablespoon tamarind sauce, or instant tamarind soup mix powder
- additional water or stock, to cover ingredients (likely around 4 cups+)
- about 7 Thai eggplants, quartered
- about 1 1/2 cups roughly chopped napa cabbage
- about 1/2 cup holy basil leaves for topping
- salt to taste
- palm sugar to taste (my master stock was a little sweet so I omitted this)
1. Prepare meat. Slow cook, cool, and shred if going that route, otherwise start frying the meat slices in a little oil. Add kroeung. Fry until fragrant.
2. Add eggplants and any other tougher vegetables you are using. Add stock if using, and some water to nearly cover.
3. Add prahok sauce and tamarind sauce. Add palm sugar if using (start with 1/2 Tablespoon or so)
4. cook for 10 minutes or so until eggplants and any other tougher vegetables are cooked through. Taste for seasonings. It might need salt, depending on your kroeung, stock, and prahok. Add salt if necessary. Add in lighter veggies that don’t require much time to cook. This time we used napa cabbage, which was nice. Cook until all vegetables are done.
5. Finally, stir in the holy basil leaves and take off heat. Enjoy with rice, jasmine or sticky rice.
My selected sources, please check them out for a comparison:
- Keo Sokhom’s excellent blog on Cambodian food, Asian Food Guide: Cambodian and Indochina Recipes, Kroeung Sour Soup
- Amok Cuisine, recipe for Tamarind Beef Soup
- “Mom’s Cambodian Recipes”, Somlor Machu Kreung Sach Ko (Cambodian beef soup with celery–youtube video) there is another instructional video from the same user on how to make your own kroeung at home.