This Cambodian chicken curry recipe makes one of Southeast Asia’s most comforting chicken curries. While it has a depth of flavour that comes from dried spices and fresh aromatic ingredients, it has a richness thanks to a liberal use of coconut cream and milk, and a gentleness due to the mild red chillies.
When Terence texted me to ask what I wanted for dinner as I waited for my flight from Hanoi to Siem Reap recently, I replied “Cambodian chicken curry, please”. After three weeks hosting my cuisine and culture tour in Vietnam – and don’t get me wrong, I adore Vietnamese food – I was craving a Cambodian chicken curry. I craved spice but I wasn’t ready for the fire of a Thai curry yet.
After a few weeks in Vietnam slurping clear soups sprinkled with fragrant herbs, wrapping crispy lettuce around smoky grilled pork, and stuffing crunchy sprouts and aromatic herbs into fried turmeric pancakes, as wonderful as all those greens were, I wanted comfort food and a gentle Cambodian chicken curry was the first thing to come to mind.
It would be the best welcome back to our adopted home of Siem Reap as far as I was concerned, as it was a Cambodian chicken curry sampled on our first trip to Temple Town many years ago that made me fall crazy in love with Cambodian food and led to my, perhaps also a little crazy, obsession with Cambodian cuisine and digging into its culinary history.
We were living in Bangkok at the time and had flown to Cambodia to do a story on the stylish side of Siem Reap, covering the city’s chic hotels, shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars for a Thai airline in-flight magazine. In Bangkok we’d been writing about restaurants and Thai food, which I’d been eating since my late teens – so for around thirty years at the time.
That meant thirty years eating Thai curries, with about ten of those eating the often mouth-numbing, sweat-inducing, fire-breathing curries that Terence cooked from David Thompson’s Thai Food. While I adore Thai food too, and particularly the Thai food that Terence cooks from David Thompson’s recipes, sometimes I don’t always want to perspire over my meal.
I just want a gentle comforting curry and this Cambodian chicken recipe does the trick and here’s why…
Cambodian Chicken Curry Recipe for a Comforting Southeast Asian Curry
This Cambodian chicken curry recipe, along with the recipe within the recipe for a red kroeung, the herb and spice paste that is the basis of so many Cambodian recipes, originally came from Authentic Cambodian Recipes From Mother to Daughter by Sorey Long and Kanika Linden, although Terence has tweaked the recipe over the years, and I’ll tell you how in a moment.
If you can get hold of the book, as unfortunately it’s now out of print, this Cambodian chicken curry recipe is simply called Chicken Curry or Samlar Can Moan in Long and Linden’s cookbook. A ‘samlar’ (also written as samlor) can refer to a stew or soup, which often stumps foreign visitors unfamiliar with Cambodian food, who have been to question to the consistency of a dish served at a restaurant having sampled one or the other. ‘Cari’ is also used to describe a curry. If you can’t find the book, perhaps check their more recent cookbook Ambarella – Cambodian Cuisine, although we haven’t used this one.
Authentic Cambodian Recipes was the first Cambodian cookbook we bought when we began researching and cooking Cambodian food. It’s a fantastic resource with a lovely introduction to Cambodian cuisine and culinary culture that also tells Sorey’s story, and good sections on terms and techniques, and a glossary of ingredients with photographs. It remains an invaluable guide to Cambodian cuisine alongside another half a dozen Cambodian cookbooks we frequently dip into, but with some qualifications.
Firstly, as with all cookbooks, it’s important to understand the background of the authors and for whom the book has been written, especially if you’ve travelled and eaten your way through Cambodia and you’re expecting this Cambodian chicken curry recipe will result in the chicken curry you ate at your hotel or a restaurant.
Unfortunately a lot of curries that travellers try in Cambodia are watery in consistency and lack the complexity that this Cambodian chicken curry recipe will result in. So unless you dined at one of Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants, such as Malis or Sugar Palm, that serve well-balanced curries of this depth, whether it’s a Cambodian chicken curry or a Saraman curry, expect that this dish will probably taste better than what you had on your travels.
The main reason for this is because Sorey Long was born in 1941 in Kratie in Cambodia to a highly educated civil servant father who became the governor of Stung Treng province, and a mother who was the daughter of a well-to-do landowner from one of Cambodia’s fertile farming regions in Kandal province. As a governor’s wife, Sorey’s mother was required to entertain and meals were “elaborate and abundant”.
When Sorey’s husband, a university professor, became Minister for Culture, Sorey would find herself entertaining members of government and ambassadors. She became a member of the International Women’s Association cooking European food, as much as Cambodian cuisine. The Cambodian food she cooked would have been rich and refined, made with premium ingredients – and of a superior quality to the Cambodian dishes you might have tried at a local eatery or market stall.
After the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, Sorey Long and her family fled the country, resettling first in the USA and then in France. The cookbook therefore reflects the style of Cambodian food that Sorey cooked before she left the country – the food of the upper middle classes and elites, which is vastly different to the Cambodian food you’ll eat outside restaurants in Cambodia, unless you get an invitation to an upper middle class home.
In the years that followed, Cambodia experienced a genocide under the Khmer Rouge, which blew up banks and burnt books, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians. The royals, government members, business people, professionals, and intellectuals who were unable to leave the country in time were murdered at the hands of the brutal regime or forced into hard labour.
Cambodia lost most of its well-educated upper- and middle classes, and with it their recipes and culinary traditions. While many Khmers have since returned (Khmer is the ethnicity of the vast majority of Cambodians), I am certain there are still many Cambodian recipes and culinary secrets that remain with the diaspora.
Sorey Long’s cookbook has also been written with international readers in mind, so ingredients have been listed in recipes that wouldn’t be used in Cambodia simply because the Cambodian ingredients aren’t readily available or are challenging to find in Europe or North America. Local cooks in Cambodian whom we’ve shown the cookbook to have often been aghast at some of the recipes and ingredients used.
There are only really a couple of things that Terence has adjusted over the years, and one is the amount of coconut cream, which he has halved, which better reflects the kind of curries you’re likely to have tasted in Cambodia. We’re wondering if the heavy use of cream was influenced by Sorey’s experience with French cooking in the 1970s in Cambodia and during her decades in France.
The other ingredient is salt, which Terence has left out, as there’s enough salt from the shrimp paste and fish sauce. Obviously if you like salt, you could add it. Just as you could add an additional tin of coconut cream if you prefer your curries to be creamier. We prefer the separation and slick of oil that comes from using fresh pressed coconut milk – and perhaps also all our years of eating Thai curries.
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 tbsp lemongrass stalks finely chopped after discarding the tough outside layers
- 1 tbsp galangal peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tsp kaffir lime zest
- 4 pieces dried medium red chillies soaked and chopped, deseeded for a milder paste
- 1 tsp turmeric peeled and chopped – wear gloves if you don't want to get stained hands
- 10 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
- 5 pieces shallots peeled and chopped
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 3 tbsp cooking oil
- 2 tbsp red kroeung see above
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1/2 tsp palm sugar
- 200 ml coconut cream
- 1 whole chicken cut into chunky pieces
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 250 ml chicken stock
- 1 handful long beans cut into 4cm lengths cut into 4cm lengths
- 2 pieces round eggplants cut into chunks, soaked in cold water to reduce bitterness, then drained
- 3 pieces sweet potatoes (or potatoes) cut into chunks and cooked separately
- Heat oil in a wok over low heat. Add red kroeung, shrimp paste and palm sugar. Stir-fry until fragrant. Add the chicken pieces and cook until well coated and takes on a little colour. Then add the coconut cream and half the amount of fish sauce (you can add more later).
- Stir in coconut milk and stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer over medium heat until chicken is tender. Add the long beans and aubergines. Just before serving add the potatoes and continue cooking until curry is reduced and thick. Taste, taste, taste, and if it's a little too mild in flavour (not heat) add more fish sauce.
- Serve with steamed rice or fresh rice vermicelli and crunchy vegetables such as cucumber or bean sprouts. Cambodians also like to eat their curries with French baguettes.
- Note: The curry will be tastier if you prepare this recipe using homemade coconut cream and milk. Also, while the curry paste will be bright red, the addition of the coconut cream and milk will see the curry have a yellow hue. This is not important, the flavour of the curry is.
Do let us know if you make this Cambodian chicken curry recipe. We’d love to know how it turns out for you.