Of all the things I miss the most on my trip, cooking is high on the list. I absolutely love going to the market and cooking dinner for myself and friends but in South East Asia it is nearly impossible. Thankfully my travel companion while in Cambodia found us a great cooking class in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. What a perfect way to relax after a crazy Siem Reap new years party on Pub Street and many early morning Angkor Wat temple tours and misty jungle temple treks.
After eating a small breakfast, we hopped in a tuk tuk and made my way to the class. After a quick shopping trip at a local open air street market to buy our fresh ingredients we made it to a beautiful covered roof top kitchen with stations prepared for each of us. We only signed up for a half day class and I was thrilled to hear “Today, we are making fish amok and spring rolls” – two of my favorites! Even better, I later read that the restaurant that sponsors the cooking classes (Frizz) had the best fish amok in town.
Many travelers told me that Khmer cuisine wasn’t anything special and was just “a bland copy of Thai food” but one of the first things I learned from the instructor was that the Khmer Kingdom covered the majority of South East Asia over a thousand years ago and as a result many non-Cambodian dishes are rooted in Khmer recipes. These traditional recipes even predate the arrival of the chili pepper to Asia – imported by the Portuguese in the 16th century – and as a result they are often much milder than most Asian dishes which have evolved to include the chili. After I inquired why, my instructor replied “Why the Thai food include chili and Cambodians serve it on the side is mystery”.
Chaio Yor – Fried Cambodian Spring Rolls
2 cups of taro root (shredded)
2 cups of carrot (shredded)
25 spring roll shells (rice and potato paper)
1 tbsp peanuts
1 beat egg
6 cups cooking oil
salt, sugar, and pepper to taste
Our first dish was fried spring rolls – A staple of many asian cuisines. Side note: I often heard chaio yor referred to as “lumpia” in many Khmer restaurants which took me by surprise as lumpia is the name for filipino fried spring rolls which are very different than these Cambodian taro spring rolls. Holy run-on sentence, Batman!
The spring roll “shells” came from the market stuck together and before we could use them we had to very carefully separate them.
2. Shred the carrots
3. Shred the taro
Baung Pamela shows the shredded and salted taro. Delicious.
4. Remove the taro starch
Much like a potato, taro root is extremely starchy and that doesn’t make for good eats. After generously salting the shredded taro to help absorb moisture, grab it all in a ball and squeeze as much starch of it as you can. The last few drops of starch might feel like squeezing blood from a stone but it’s worth it.
5. Rinse and repeat
Rinse the remaining starch and salt from the taro before proceeding. Here we are using bottled water because the water in Cambodia is not safe for tourists to drink. Squeeze and rise again if needed.
6. Add MSG if desired
Most food in Asia still contains MSG (monosodium glutamate) and I often see huge 50kg bags of it in markets and behind restaurants. It is nearly tasteless on its own but when added to food it brings out many of the flavors. We opted to not use MSG but you are welcome to add some if you want a more authentic asian meal. Among the shredded taro and carrot you can see some (unused) MSG in its container.
Combine the carrots and taro in a bowl, then add peanuts to taste.
8. Mix and season
Combine the carrots, taro, and peanut mixture together, then add salt, sugar, and pepper to taste. Mix until homogenous or you’ll end up with some spring rolls that are all taro and others that are really salty. Consistency is king here.
9. Roll up the filling
Make a small sausage of filling in one hand. Make sure it is tight or the moisture in the air gaps will expand and cause the spring roll to deform and possibly rupture while frying.
The key to a good spring roll is how you wrap it. It must be very tightly wrapped or oil will seep in and ruin it by oil frying and overcooking the inside ingredients , moisture will leak out, and your spring rolls will taste bad and look even worse. It’s OK to halfway unwrap and try again if your final roll ends up a bit loose. Go ahead, I won’t tell anyone.
11. Roll and pinch down the edges
Tightly roll the shell once to cover the filling, then pinch down on the edges to ensure as little air is in the middle.
12. Fold over the edges
Fold the edges over to close the sides of the spring roll, making sure to do so as tightly as possible without tearing the shell.
Very tightly. I can’t stress this enough. “Tight like a tiger”
14. Seal the deal
Before finishing the roll, spread some raw beat egg (not shown) on the inside of the shell, then finish the roll. The egg will act as a glue and hold the very-tightly-wound spring roll together. The finished product should look something like this – preferably with edges a bit more even than shown here.
Heat 6 cups of vegetable oil on high temperature, making sure to not reach the smoking point of the oil. We don’t want these to taste like burning.
Once the oil is hot, turn the temperature down to medium and carefully drop each spring roll into the oil one at a time being careful to not splash and burn yourself. I can tell you from experience, fry oil burns are not fun. Cook for approximately 20 minutes.
Now would be a good time to start on the dipping sauce – recipe below. Don’t forget to turn them frequently while actually making the sauce!
16. Finish frying
After about 20 minutes your spring rolls should look golden brown and delicious. I actually overcooked this batch and they came out a bit too hard, so I’d aim for a slightly lighter color.
17. Remove the oil
Carefully remove each spring roll with a spatula or tongs and quickly roll them in a paper towel to remove the oil before they get a chance to cool off.
Serve with the sweet and sour dipping sauce. Traditionally these are served on a plate of lettuce adorned with tomato and cucumber slices.
Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce
The official recipe handed to me by the instructor listed the following ingredients but he then totally ignored the proportions and went to town. I’d hope if you followed these exact ingredient proportions you’d end up with a pretty tasty sauce. The key seemed to be tons of sugar.
4 cloves of garlic
1 fresh red pepper
1 fresh hot chili
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbs sugar
1 tbs salt
2 tbs lemon juice
1 tbsp peanuts (Crushed)
1/2 bowl of water
The most important ingredient: fish sauce, cleverly disguised in this scotch whiskey bottle. It may look like scotch and be in a scotch bottle but I implore you – do not take a shot of this stuff. Consider yourself warned.
1. Sugar and sauce
Pour out tons of fish sauce and add nearly equal parts sugar, if not more. This may seem like a mistake at first, but the fish sauce is the liquid base and the you need a metric boat load of sugar to make it actually sweet and tasty.
2. Add kaffir lime juice
Kaffir limes are a knobbly, dark skinned citrus fruit with a very strong lime fragrance and flavor. The pungent leaves are used in curries and salads and the rind is grated over salads and used in soups and curries. The juice is also used in many dishes as well – every part of this plant gets used in Cambodian cooking. Lemons or limes can be substituted if kaffir limes can not be found, but kaffir limes provide a a more accurate flavor. Kaffir limes are also used in Thai and Indonesian cooking.
Add the juice from a few limes, to taste.
Fun for the whole family!
3. Dice and add chili peppers
These chili peppers were closer to bell peppers in flavor and were not spicy at all.
Get them nice and fine…
4. Crush the garlic
In your mortar. You do have a mortar, don’t you? If you are taking photos, try to get better photo of this step than I did. Make sure to really crush these into a very fine paste or you’ll end up with huge garlic chunks in your sauce.
5. Combine and taste
Add the crushed garlic and diced peppers to the sugary fish sauce and viola – dipping sauce! Feel free to taste your creation at this point.
6. Add peanuts and julienne sliced shallots
Sprinkle some peanuts and julienned shallots to the top of your dipping sauce and serve.
( THIS SPACE LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK. I DID NOT TAKE A PHOTO OF THE FINAL SAUCE. )
Amok is a Cambodian curry which is steamed instead of boiled and the result is solid but moist. The secret to a good amok is the “kroeung”, or Khmer herb paste. The kroeung is the key to the exotic flavors and aromas in Khmer cuisine and starts with lemon grass, galangal, rhizome, turmeric, kaffir lime zest, garlic, and shallot. There are many different recipes for curry and they can be easily varied by adding dried red chillies, grilled or steamed kapi (shrimp paste) or prahok (fish paste), roasted peanuts, and julienned peppers.
5 dried red chillies (soaked and drained)
3 cloves of garlic
2 tbs galangal, cut small
1 tsp lemongrass, very thinly sliced
Zest of 1/4 kaffir lime
1 tsp salt
Curry paste Ingredients
4 kaffir lime leaves, chopped ( I chiffonaded them since it’s fun, as seen below)
1/4 of kaffir lime zest
1 cm of turmeric, peeled
3 tbs of shrimp paste
3 shallots, chopped
3 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp peanuts
1 tsp black peppercorns (optional)
For a green curry (not shown):
4 tbs lemon grass leaf (the top part), thinly sliced
4 fresh green chillies
2 tbsp coriander stems
For a red curry (what we are making):
4 tbs lemon grass (white part only), thinly sliced
4 fresh hot red chillies
30g of young nhor leaves (apparently kale or spinach can substitute but the flavor is definitely not the same)
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp kaffir lime leaves
3 chili peppers
500g meaty fish
3/4 cup coconut cream
2 cups of coconut milk
1 egg, beaten
Our kroeung starts with the following:
1. Prepare your work space
This involves a lot of cutting, dicing, julienning, pounding, stirring, and mixing so make sure you have laid out your ingredients and have everything ready.
2. Combine and mash dry ingredients together
Very thinly slice approximately 1 tsp of lemongrass and mash it in your mortar until it looks like a dry paste. Lemongrass is best when the tops of the leaves are still green.
Once the lemongrass is a paste, add your garlic, galangal, shallots, and some chillies and mash those as well until it is a paste. This might take a while. You can alternately throw it all in a food processor, but where’s the fun in that?
Galangal is a cream colored root that resembles ginger but it has a more delicate and less bitter flavor. Ginger can be used as a substitute to galangal in a pinch but it is not recommended as the flavors are quite different.
Once this is combined you can refrigerate the kroeung if you aren’t using it immediately. It can also be used to add some kick to soups and stir fries.
3. Create your curry paste
Combine and crush the lemongrass, lime zest, galangal, turmeric, garlic, peppercorns, shallot, shrimp paste, and chili (and coriander stems if you are making a green paste). Pound or mix these into a smooth paste. If desired, feel free to add 2 tbsp of peanuts as well – though this isn’t strictly traditional.
4. Add coconut
Add 1 cup of coconut milk to the resulting paste, mix until mostly dissolved, then add the egg and fish sauce. Once done, add the remaining coconut milk and mix well.
5. Add fish
Once the coconut curry base is mixed, you should add your cubed fish.
6. Chop chillies (like a boss)
Chop all of your soaked and drained red chillies. Feel free to double-butcher-knife them for bonus style points.
7. Combine everything
Now that you’ve created your kroeung and curry paste, combine all ingredients into your mortar and stir.
8. Make banana leaf cups
Making banana leaf cups is arguably the most fun part of the amok creation process. Start off with a large stack of banana leaves, each cleaned off with a wet cloth. Dip them each in boiling water so they are soft and do not crack when being shaped. Stack and cut them into 25cm circles. This can be made easier with a 25cm lid as seen below.
After cutting your stack should look something like this:
9. Kill all of the nasties (and make them all shiny ’n purty)
Even after being dipped in boiling water the banana leaves (which have likely been sitting around in the corner of a south east asian fish market for days or weeks) might still be harboring some bad bacteria. Putting them over a burner will not only kill many of the remaining bacteria (the rest will hopefully be killed when we steam everything) but it will also make the banana leaves glossy and shiny. This apparently helps keep the leaves firm when steamed and helps to keep the curry from seeping into the leaves while cooking and vice versa.
10. Marvel at your work
Take a minute to marvel. Are you marveling? If not, you should be. Marvel, I say, marvel!
This step should not be skipped. Marvel!
11. Begin forming your cup
With the shinier side of the banana leaf face up, pleat and fold the leaf together, as shown below. You are aiming for a pentagonal (5 sided) base so plan accordingly.
12. Use toothpicks for structural integrity
Each pleat should be held in place with a tooth pick. In this case we used bamboo.
13. Finish the cup
Repeat 5 times and your banana leaf cup should be complete. It should resemble the cup below:
14. Fill your cup
Pour your amok into your new banana leaf cups, again, making sure that the shiny side is on the inside of the cup.
15. Steam and decorate
Steam in a covered pot for 15-20 minutes. When finished, add some coconut cream to the top and top off with thinly sliced kaffir leaves and cayenne peppers. Re-cover and continue steaming until the mixture is solid but still moist.
16. Serve with rice
Amok is a (very thick) curry and as such it is best served with some white rice.
The proper way to eat amok is to combine a small amount of amok with a small amount of rice on your spoon. You are not supposed to just pour all of the amok on the rice – but who am I to tell you how to eat your food? Just enjoy it however you like! There are many other variants of Amok out there including amok steamed in coconut shells, pumpkin or taro flavored, versions with other meats, spicy amok and mild amok… the combinations seem almost endless.
Cambodia Cooking Class
If you enjoyed these recipes and want to learn more while in the wonderful Phnom Penh, I highly recommend you visit the Cambodia Cooking Class. The teacher was extremely friendly and fun and wasn’t afraid to let us know when we were doing something wrong. Recipe amounts and some of the text in this article were taken from their class hand out.
Address: #67 Street 240, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: 012-62 48 01