Along with prahok (fermented fish), the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung 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.
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.
One thing that perhaps 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 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 history of Cambodia.
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 is some fresh bird’s eye chillies on the table at local eateries (you’ll have to ask for it 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 for amok (the famous Cambodian steamed fish ‘soufflé’), as a marinade for meats, and are used in stir-fries.
As a follow on from the last recipe, Beef Massaman Curry, the next recipe I will explore will be its Cambodian cousin, the Saraman curry.