This Beef Lok Lak recipe delivers a delicious traditional Cambodian pepper beef dish, made with Kampot pepper, in a more contemporary form. This local favourite, which for many Cambodians is their national dish, was one of the inspirations for my creative Cambodian canapés.
This beef lok lak recipe is for another local favourite that served as inspiration for one of the creative Cambodian canapés we created for our New Year’s Eve spread. While the presentation of this dish was modern for our canapés, the recipe itself is for an authentic traditional Cambodian dish, albeit one whose provenance is often debated.
It’s believed that Cambodia’s beef lok lak is of Vietnamese origin as there’s a near-identical Vietnamese dish called thit bo luc lac. The Vietnamese dish has virtually the same name, which translates to ‘shaking beef’, because the cook has to shake the wok back and forth to evenly sear the beef.
It’s thought that the French, who colonised Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and popularised beef, might have brought beef lok lak to Cambodia via Phnom Penh. Lara, who has been researching this subject as part of a longer-term project on Cambodia’s culinary history, is still searching for evidence of that, and while it’s certainly a possibility if not a probability, she believes the dish might even have a longer history.
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Beef Lok Lak Recipe – Traditional Cambodian Pepper Beef made with Kampot Pepper
Several Cambodian chefs have told us that they believe beef lok lak arrived when the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia for a decade after Vietnam’s December 1978 invasion, when the Vietnamese ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. However, Khmer-Americans who went into exile before the Khmer Rouge came to power, have been cooking the dish ever since their arrival in the USA.
It could have been brought to Cambodia in the 19th century following Vietnam’s 34-year colonisation of Cambodia, from 1834 until Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1867. Or it could have arrived during ‘the French century’ as the colonial period is often called.
But history is more complicated than that. We shouldn’t forget that the area we now know as Central and Southern Vietnam were part of what we now know as Cambodia for over 800 years. When the French offered to protect Cambodia from its neighbours, Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand), because Siam had also occupied parts of Cambodia, including Siem Reap and Battambang, Cambodia, as part of that deal, was forced to give up some of its southeast region, including Prey Nokor (which would become Saigon), the Mekong Delta and Tay Ninh, which had been part of the Khmer Empire for over 800 years.
Central and Southern Vietnam was part of ‘Cambodia’ from as early as 500BC, when they were part of the Khmer-speaking Kingdom of Funan. Interestingly, Funan’s port Oc Eo was on the international maritime trade routes that connected Han China with the Roman Empire.
While Funan and the Kingdom of Chenla and Khmer Empire that followed were influenced by India, we know from Chinese annals that Chinese emissaries, traders and merchants had been travelling to and spending long periods of time here between journeys. Some stayed on and married local women.
We know from the detailed bas-reliefs on the Bayon temple walls that the Khmer were already stir-frying, as well as barbecuing, steaming, and stewing. We know from the journal of the Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan who was at Angkor for a year in 1296 that wild pepper grew here, and that they had cattle and deer (which we can also see on the bas-reliefs), and that venison was eaten. Interestingly, although it is technical illegal to kill wild deer now, Cambodians eat a venison lok lak in the countryside, especially near Phnom Kulen.
Our beef lok lak recipe could well have been brought to the land that we now know as Cambodia and Vietnam directly by the Chinese as there are numerous black pepper beef stir-fry dishes from China, for instance, in Fujian, and Guangdong and Cantonese cuisines.
A similar black pepper stir-fry from Guangdong lists the same ingredients in this beef lok lak recipe, with the addition of ginger and onion, while a Cantonese dish also boasts the same ingredients as my beef lok lak recipe, but with bell pepper, onion and sesame oil.
The first Chinese to settle in Cambodia during the Khmer Empire (802-1431) were Hokkien speaking peoples from Fujian province. Further waves arrived at the end of the 17th century (Cantonese and Hainanese); during the French protectorate period (Hokkien and Cantonese from Guangdong); and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries before and after the French (Hakka and Teochew from southern Fujian).
With the origins of our beef lok lak recipe being so contested, I prefer to call it a Cambodian dish, which suggests that it could have been influenced by the culinary heritage of Cambodians other than Khmer, such as Cambodian-Chinese, whereas Khmer suggests it is indigenous.
Regardless of where my beef lok lak recipe originally came from, it’s incredibly delicious. Once reserved for special occasions, beef lok lak is now eaten both in the home and at modest eateries, generally during the day, for breakfast, lunch or a snack.
It’s always eaten with rice, which is served in a bowl on the side, and usually has a soft fried egg on top so that when you break the egg the yolk run through the cubes of meat.
You can order very good Kampot Pepper online at Amazon.
Notes on Presentation of Beef Lok Lak
I haven’t stipulated how you should present the dish in my beef lok lak recipe but it’s traditionally served in a mound on the plate or on a bed of lettuce (or watercress at good restaurants, such as Mahob Khmer). Thick slices of crunchy green tomatoes are arranged around or to the side of the meat.
A runny fried egg is often plopped on top of the beef and sometimes French fries will be served on the side. Evidence of the French connection? Or a twist to the dish to please hungry foreign travellers?
For our more contemporary presentation of the beef lok lak for our spread of creative Cambodian canapés, we served neat pieces of beef individually on single slices of green tomato. I spooned a little of the peppery juices over the beef and tomato and popped a fried quail egg on top of each.
A note: Lara has undertaken the research, above, for a Cambodian cookbook and culinary history we are working on and has all sources. Please don’t plagiarise this material. Get in touch if you’d like more information or permission to quote her research.
- 600 g beef fillet cubed
- 2 tbsp white sugar
- 2 tbsp black Kampot pepper crushed
- 2½ tbsp garlic crushed
- 5 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1½ tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
- 1 tbsp dark soy
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 fresh lime
- 1 tsp black Kampot pepper ground
- 1 tsp sea salt
- Combine the beef with the sugar, half of the pepper, half of the garlic, 2/3 of the oyster sauce and light soy sauce, salt and cornstarch. Mix thoroughly and marinate for at least an hour in the fridge.
- After marinating, remove the mixture from the fridge and let it get to room temperature.
- Add the oil to a hot pan, and add the beef mixture. Stir fry until medium rare. Remove the mixture from the pan and deglaze the pan with the rice wine until reduced.
- Add the remaining garlic fry until translucent. Add the beef again and add the remaining oyster sauce, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and pepper.
- Cook to your liking. We generally like ours medium rare if we're using the best quality beef.
- The sauce should be thick.
- Serve on a plate with thick slices of green tomatoes on the side.
- Quarter the lime, put some of the ground Kampot black pepper and sea salt into a small side dish, squeeze the juice onto the pepper, combine, and taste. Add more salt or pepper, as you like.
- Serve this dipping sauce (tek merec) on the side. Meat can be dipped into the bowl or it can be poured over the beef.