The Cambodian Saraman Curry or Cari Saramann is the richest of the Cambodian curries and the most complex. A cousin of the Thai Massaman curry and Beef Rendang of Malaysia, its time-consuming nature makes it a special occasion dish for Cambodians, particularly in the Cham Muslim communities of Cambodia.
The similarity with Thailand’s Massaman Curry (also written as Mussaman curry) lies in the base curry paste with just a few ingredients setting the Saraman Curry apart and that’s the use of star anise, sometimes turmeric, and dry roasted grated coconut.
The latter is what the Saraman Curry has in common with Malaysia’s Beef Rendang, the dry roasted coconut helping to give the curry that beautiful rich, thick gravy that has you adding yet another spoonful of rice to your bowl just to mix it with the sauce.
We’ve done a great deal of research on all three dishes in recent years for a couple of projects that will remain a secret for a little while longer, but as a result we’ve had many conversations with Cambodians, Thais and Malays about these dishes.
While discussing the Cambodian Saraman Curry recipe with some old Cambodian cooks with intimate knowledge of the dish’s recipe and long experience cooking it, they were horrified to learn that some Cambodian cookbook recipes include shrimp paste on the list of ingredients.
“We don’t use shrimp paste here, we use prahok (fermented fish)! Thais use shrimp paste,” one of the old ladies told us firmly.
Which brings us to one of the conundrums of recipe writing. How do we remain faithful to the authentic recipes and respect the cuisine while acknowledging that some ingredients might not be available to people outside the region or the country where it originates? Should a quest for authenticity and respect for the country’s culinary heritage mean that we simply shouldn’t cook the dish at all if we can’t find the ingredients?
Chef David Thompson has no qualms in telling people that they should not cook a dish if they can’t obtain the right ingredients. At a cooking demonstration I attended in 2014, he amusingly told a participant to move to a more civilised country where he can get real coconut cream, rather than use a store bought tin.
An American pastry chef who lives in Paris recently slighted David Thompson in a blog post because David didn’t offer substitutes for ingredients in his cookbook. I can just imagine David’s response to that… in two words.
David’s huge tome, Thai Food, is just as much a reference and compendium of Thai food and the history of Thai cuisine as it is a cookbook. It makes no promises to pander to the cook who wants to knock out a curry on a Saturday night after a brief trip to the local supermarket duopoly.
While it is easy to find coconut milk on the shelves around the world (don’t tell David, but I’d be happy to make a curry with store-bought coconut cream if I had a desperate longing for a Thai curry), you’re not going to find prahok on the average supermarket shelf and you’ll have to do a fair bit of detective work. Start by figuring out the suburbs where your city’s Cambodian diaspora resides and head there. At the very least, investigate the city’s best Asian supermarkets and grocery stores.
Regardless of how our old Cambodian cooks believe an authentic Cari Saramann should be made, every recipe for Saraman Curry in modern Cambodian cookbooks that we have specifies shrimp paste being used in the curry paste and not prahok.
“The reason that you’ll see shrimp paste on the list of ingredients for this dish is its history,” says Chef Jo Rivieres of Cuisine Wat Damnak, arguably one of the most knowledgeable of the working expat chefs in Cambodia when it comes to Cambodian recipes.
While Chef Jo doesn’t pander to guests with the most obvious dishes, on occasion I have sampled his Cari Saramann — and it’s delicious. But there’s no shrimp paste in sight.
“I don’t have shrimp paste in my kitchen, it’s just not part of Khmer cuisine,” he says. Note the distinction he’s clearly making between ‘Cambodian’ cuisine and ‘Khmer’ cuisine. The former has absorbed the influences of other cultures, including Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese, while the latter is more ‘pure’ in the eyes of Cambodians. Khmer cuisine is the country’s indigenous cuisine, with influences that date well beyond the Khmer Empire to India.
Indeed, one well-regarded American-based Cambodian chef and cookbook writer, Narin Seng Jameson, in her book Cooking the Cambodian Way, calls the Saraman Curry paste an Indian-style curry paste and the curry itself, a ‘Salman Curry’. She uses shrimp paste and the addition of a powder of dried caraway seeds (also known as Persian cumin) in her paste.
As the Saraman Curry is a Cambodian Cham Muslim dish, however, it is therefore not actually Khmer, so you could indeed use shrimp paste guilt-free. While its provenance might not be ‘pure’ Khmer, it’s a knockout dish, as many Cambodian dishes are.
When served family-style with an array of other dishes, including rice, a soup, vegetables, and maybe a salad — which is the traditional way of eating here in Cambodia — everyone usually just takes one piece of meat and some sauce until everyone has had some. It’s hard not to go back for another spoonful before the meal ends. But keep in mind that everyone else at the table is probably eyeing that pieces off too…
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 star anise (cracked a little)
- 4 cloves
- 3 green cardamoms
- 5 cm cinnamon stick (broken into small pieces)
- 2 tsp coarse salt
- 5 dried red chillis (soaked, drained, seeded and chopped)
- 4 lemongrass stalks (outer part removed and very finely chopped)
- 5 shallots (peeled and chopped)
- 15 cloves garlic (peeled and chopped)
- 3 tsp galangal (peeled and chopped)
- 1 tsp kaffir lime zest
- 2 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tsp coriander root (cleaned and chopped)
- ½ tsp turmeric fresh (peeled and chopped)
- 100 g grated coconut (dry roasted)
- Dry roast the dry spices in a pan over low heat. If you have time, it’s best to do each spice separately as they all cook at a different pace.
- Remove the cardamom seeds from the pods and discard the pods.
- Grind the spices, either in a mortar and pestle or a coffee/spice grinder.
- Add the grated coconut to the mortar and pestle or to the spices if you used a spice grinder.
- Add the ‘wet’ ingredients (fresh herbs, and so on) one by one, starting with the hardest ingredient (the lemongrass), and pound it into a fine paste.
- Roast the shrimp paste in a banana leaf or aluminium foil over low heat to release the aromas and then add to the Saraman curry paste you've made so far. Combine well.
- 150 gr saramann curry paste (see recipe above)
- 250 ml coconut cream
- 250 ml coconut milk
- 500 gm beef fillet cut into 5 cm cubes
- 100 g roasted, unsalted peanuts — extra for serving
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1½ tbsp tamarind water
- Heat a wok to medium heat and add a little vegetable oil and a teaspoon of the curry paste you have just made.
- Add the cubes of beef and brown them all over. This should take around 10 minutes.
- Remove the beef cubes, lower the heat, add the coconut cream and the curry paste. Stir until the paste is incorporated into the cream.
- Add the beef back to the wok and increase the heat until almost to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and leave for one hour, checking regularly to ensure that there is enough sauce to cover the meat. If it doesn’t cover the meat add some water or stock.
- After one hour add the palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind water, and peanuts. You can taste for seasoning now, but it’s better to wait another hour. Leave the curry uncovered on a light simmer.
- After two hours the sauce should have thickened and you should have nice separation between the sauce and oil. This is a good thing. Check the meat to see if it’s fall-apart tender. You may have to keep cooking it for another hour at least, depending on the cut of meat.
- As the sauce reduces further, add the coconut milk gradually. You can now adjust the seasoning, using more palm sugar to make it sweeter or fish sauce to intensify the flavour by making it more salty.
- When it’s nearly ready to serve, I like to add a little ‘zing’ with a couple of lightly crushed birds-eye chillis. Completely optional.
- Serve with steamed rice, some pickled vegetables, or just a baguette to mop up that delicious sauce.
The recipe has been adapted from a recipe in Authentic Cambodian Recipes, from Mother to Daughter by Sorey Long and Kanika Linden. It’s worth noting that, despite the title, the Cambodian cooks we’ve interviewed claim it is clear that the recipes are firmly aimed at a foreign audience. Sorey Long left Cambodian to move abroad following the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. It’s therefore a good book to use if you live outside Cambodia.
This post is part of our Year of Asian Cookbooks series.