Cambodian Saramann Curry Paste. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

The Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung

Kroeung, the Cambodian curry paste, along with prahok (fermented fish paste), is one of the distinctive signature ingredients in the Khmer kitchen. Flavouring everything from soups to stir-fries, its characteristics are a source of immense pride for a good Cambodian cook.

The Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung

With a base of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, and shallots, kroeung is made daily giving it fresh flavour notes even when used in curries as heavy as the spicy Saraman, which I’ll write about in my next A year of Asian Cookbooks post.

But are the characteristics of the kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia?

Yes and no. The base ingredients for the curry paste are common in Thai cooking — not surprisingly considering the shared history of the two countries — but it’s the use of turmeric in the standard base curry paste of Khmer cooking that sets it apart.

However, of the Thai curry repertoire, some ‘foreign’ Thai curries (as Chef David Thompson calls them) do often contain fresh turmeric, such as our gaeng hang lay moo recipe.

One thing that sets kroeung apart from Thai curry pastes is that there is no chilli in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric which is often sold fresh in markets and already chopped finely. You then add the required garlic and shallots when you’re ready to finish the paste.

This goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts.

A Cambodian Saraman curry will be very spicy when made in a manner one would call authentic, but it still doesn’t have a chilli kick. It’s spicy in the way that an Indian curry is — also no surprise given the early history of Cambodia.

Cambodia was greatly affected by the Indianisation of Southeast Asia, as a result of the spread of Hinduism and trade. India influenced the language, religion, politics, mythology, architecture, art, and culture, so it had to have impacted the cuisine, and remnants of that influence had to linger.

A Cambodian red curry chicken dish will arrive a little milder than one in Thailand, but the base curry requires almost the same amount of chillies to be pounded in the mortar and pestle. In fact, it’s almost the same recipe, give or take a coriander root (in many Thai versions) and some fresh turmeric (a must in Cambodian versions).

But what you will find in Cambodia are some fresh bird’s eye chillies on the table at local eateries (you’ll have to ask for them at the anodyne tourist restaurants). We’ve asked every Cambodian we’ve met about their ability to eat spicy food and most do like it spicy and will make versions of their classic dishes much spicier than they’re found in restaurants. Having eaten a few home-cooked meals here, I have to agree.

So why are Cambodian curries generally considered milder that their Thai cousins? The general consensus is that it’s so they don’t scare the tourists away. “It’s like Thai curry, but not spicy!” waiters will say.

The reason? The chillies are milder in Cambodia, particularly the bird’s eyes. But the real reason is that they don’t want to offend the tourists.

Another myth about Cambodian curries is that there are only two curry pastes, red and green.

There are actually five curry pastes that are regularly used in Cambodian cooking; red (kroeung samlar kari), k’tis (kroeung samlar k’tis), Saraman (kroeung samlar saraman), yellow (kroeung samlar m’chou), and green (kroeung prâhoeur).

Some pastes have a specific use such as Saraman, while others, such as the yellow paste, are used as a marinade for meats, stir-fries, stews and soups (‘samlar m’chou’ for instance means ‘sour soup’), and for amok (the famous Cambodian steamed fish ‘soufflé’).

As a follow on from the last recipe, Beef Massaman Curry, the next recipe I will explore will be its Cambodian cousin, the Cambodian Saraman curry.

There are 18 comments

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  1. Bryan

    I guess I don’t get the idea of not wanting to offend tourists with spicy foods. We like it spicy. In Thailand, we would order our food spicy. “Thai spicey,” I would say. Always, the kick was completely gone.

  2. Terence Carter

    Agree. Just spent a month telling every restaurant and stall in Phuket that “yes, we can eat spicy!” One restaurant initially refused to serve us a dip because the waitress said we wouldn’t like it (lots of shrimp paste). It’s a constant annoyance.

  3. Terence Carter

    Hey Matt, if you make use of the small birds-eye chillis you can quickly give a curry a real kick. I find it also helps to bring out the flavour of the curry too. Like I said in the post, if there isn’t any on the table it’s because they think barangs don’t like it — just ask for it!

  4. Jennifer

    At first, I asked for tourist spicy, thinking they’d burn my mouth, but then I started insisting on spicy as well. It took days before I got one single dish that was actually spciy. Annoying!

  5. Lara Dunston

    Chef David Thompson calls Cambodian curries “gentle” and it’s an accurate description. They can be very delicious and they are laden with spices and herbs, but they are not spicy-hot. Cambodians actually prefer sour, bitter and pungent to sweet and use a lot of bitter leaves and aromatic herbs such as lemongrass. Having said that, some Cambodians like things hot, so if you go to a local eatery or food stall, especially a soup stand, they will often have dishes of chopped or whole birds-eye chillies for you to add, and many Cambodians do.

  6. Michael

    Hi Terence – Do any traditional Khmer curry dishes utilise the distinctive ‘heat’ you get from Kampot pepper, whether it be the black, red, white or even the fresh young green berries ?

  7. Terence Carter

    Greetings Michael, great question. No, they do not. Even with the Saraman Curry (Cari Saramann) paste, which uses dried spices, there is no pepper involved. However ground white pepper is used a lot in Khmer dishes (and also in some Thai curry pastes), so I’ll use it there, however the dish that makes the most of that distinctive ‘heat’ (and the peppers are fantastic, as you’ve clearly experienced) is Kampot pepper crab with green peppercorns whole and on the vine.



  8. Michael

    Cheers for the tips, always looking to experiment further. You are spot on re. the crab – a constant reminder of visiting Kep.

  9. Terence Carter

    No problems. Do you live in Cambodia? Are you a chef?

    PS: Just remembered that black pepper is a key ingredient in Beef Loc Lac (stir-fried beef with pepper), but that’s not really ‘Khmer’, it’s generally though tot be Chinese or some say Vietnamese in origin.


  10. Michael

    No, I live in London and not a chef. I read one of your (or Lara’s) blog posts / articles recently when it talked about about a distinction between Cambodian and Khmer dishes – I had not seen that before. There is only one Cambodian restaurant in London (I can’t speak for the rest of the UK). I am interested in exploring Cambodian cuisine further as it is very much overlooked in the UK.

  11. Borin Khoy

    Hi Terence,

    If you are searching for authentic Khmer Dishes, maybe it lies in the Cardamom mountains of Southwestern Cambodia? Instead of comparing Khmer Food to its young neighbors, how about looking into the past where the neighbors did not yet come into existence. Would it be fair to compare Khmer Food to that of Thai when Thailand is the youngest country in the region?

    Kroeung literally means ingredients. Eg., Kroeung curry would be the ingredients for curry and Kroeung Somlar would be the ingredients to make a soup dish. Now, as a set of ingredients is being very common and, for convenience, ground to a “general use spice paste,” the word Kroeung can apply to both ingredients and the “general use spice paste.” The root set type of the ingredients are spices. To be referred to as curry paste without curry ingredients would be less correct than referring to the Kroeung as a Spice paste. Maybe we can look back to the Mon-Khmer civilization where the spices originated to present day. I would refer to Kroeung in western dialect as a Khmer Spice Paste. What do you think?

  12. Terence Carter

    Greetings Borin,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The reason for comparing Khmer dishes to its young neighbors (nicely put!) is simply that most Western visitors to Cambodia are more familiar with Thai food — and that is generally the audience for this website. Most Westerns have eaten in a Thai restaurant, most have never eaten in a Khmer one!

    I understand your comments on the usage of the word ‘Kroeung’ — it makes sense because its use is so much more than just for ‘curries’. But to generalise the term as ‘Khmer Spice Paste’ would be somewhat misleading as some pastes, such as the ‘yellow Khmer Spice Paste’ doesn’t have spices as such, there are no dried ingredients in it unless the cook can’t find fresh turmeric…

    How about Kroeung being described as Khmer spice/herb pastes? But then chillis are — depending who you ask — a vegetable or a fruit. So that would make Kroeung a Khmer spice/herb/vegetable/fruit paste…

  13. Borin Khoy

    Thanks for your perspective Terence.

    I’m still chuckling to your last sentence as it is a good point when painting the pallette for your audience. I’d have to say I was a little shocked at first because I’ve never heard it described as a Khmer curry paste. I’m ok now.

  14. Terence Carter

    Thanks Borin. Problem still not solved, though 😉 but it’s something we’ll spend some time thinking about. Your points are valid and I will give more thought to the application of ‘kroeung’ to curries/salads/soups in Khmer cuisine. We’ve been discussing it here in Siem Reap as were working on a cookbook with local chefs/cooks and trying to find a way to better represent what it means. I’ll amend the post when I figure out a good — more accurate — way to describe it.
    Thanks again.

  15. Lara Dunston

    Hi Borin (Kevin?)

    I am only just catching up on your conversation with Terence and wanted to pick up on your comment about looking for ‘authentic’ Khmer dishes. There is authentic Khmer food all over Cambodia, as well as ‘Cambodian’ cuisine, if that’s the name we give to more ‘modern’ food, influenced by various traders, occupiers and colonists.

    The research I have been doing over the last couple of years has been very widespread, going back to the pre-Angkor era and period of Indianization to the French colonial times and Vietnamese occupation. I’ve been studying everything from the bas-reliefs on the temple walls at The Bayon to the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan’s ‘Notes on the Customs of Cambodia’ dating to 1296-97, when he spent a year here. I’m also looking at the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya (Thai, of course) from the 1300s onwards; the journals of the Portuguese, who were here in the 1550s; obscure travelogues, such as that by Belgian tourists who were at Angkor in the late 1890s; recent socio-anthropological studies of the hill-tribe food in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, and even agricultural research studies.

    I’m keeping much of what I’ve been working on for our cookbook/culinary book, as I haven’t found any writing of any depth on the subject that is based on thorough and widespread research. Although I may post a summary here on the site at some stage.

    We agree that the cuisine here is older than some of its neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. It has to be, because the culture is older. I also don’t believe that it was always as simple as some suggest – that it was little more than ‘peasant food’ – because I find it hard to believe that an empire that was sophisticated, with such sublime beauty when it comes to architecture, art, sculpture, dance, music, textiles and clothing and so on, would eat nothing but rice, dried fish and prahok (that’s an exaggeration of course, because we know they ate a lot more game, fruits and vegetable etc). However, my point is that I can’t imagine a rich kingdom that has incredibly extravagant processions with lots of pomp and ceremony, elephants and horses decorated in finery, servants carrying the king on a golden palanquin, shaded by parasols, musicians and dancers etc, would not have a cuisine that was rich and delicious, just as, say, the Chinese empires, and later, Russian, and French did. What are your thoughts?

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