Cambodian Saramann Curry Paste (Kroeung). Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

The Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung – A Cambodian Cuisine Essential

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

With a base of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, and shallots, the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung is a herb and spice paste that’s pounded from from fresh ingredients and used in more than just curries.

Made fresh daily, both in the home and commercially, Cambodian kroeungs have fresh flavour notes, even when used in curries as heavy as the spicy Saraman curry, which I’ll write about in my next A Year of Asian Cookbooks post.

But are the characteristics of the Cambodian kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia? Well, yes and no.

Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung – A Cambodian Cuisine Essential

The base ingredients for the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung 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, a yellow Cambodian kroeung, 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.

Another thing that sets the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung apart from the Thai curry pastes is that there is no chilli in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric, which is sold freshly pounded in markets. You then add the required garlic and shallots when you’re ready to finish the paste at home.

The lack of chilli goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts. They are certainly more gentle, however, a Cambodian Saraman curry can 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 – which is also no surprise given the early history of Cambodia.

Cambodia was greatly influenced by the early 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 of Cambodia, so it had to have impacted the cuisine, and remnants of that influence had to linger and they do.

A Cambodian red curry chicken dish will arrive a little milder than a red curry in Thailand, but the base red kroeung, pictured above, 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).

When you eat out in Cambodia what you will also find 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 their food spicy and will make versions of their classic dishes spicier than they’re found in restaurants.

Having eaten a few home-cooked meals here, I have to agree. However, not all Cambodians like their curries hot, especially the younger generation, so the dish of chillies on the table gives people some measure of control over the heat of the dish.

So why are Cambodian curries generally considered milder than 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.

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

There are actually five kroeung curry pastes that are regularly used in Cambodian cooking; the base herb and spice paste, the yellow kroeung (kroeung samlor m’chou), the green kroeung (kroeung prâhoeur), the red kroeung (kroeung samlor kari), a paste called ‘k’tis kroeung’ (kroeung samlor k’tis), and the saraman kroeung (kroeung samlor saraman).

Some pastes have a specific use such as the saraman kroeung, which is used to make the Cambodian Saraman curry, while others, such as the yellow kroeung paste, are used as a marinade for charcoal-grilled beef skewers, stir-fries (look for ‘char kreoung’ on a menu or in a cookbook), and stews and soups (‘samlar m’chou’ means ‘sour soup’), such as samlor machou kroeung sach ko, a sour beef soup with morning glory, and for fish amok or amok trei, the famous Cambodian soufflé-like steamed fish curry.

As a follow on from the last recipe, the Thai beef Massaman curry, the next recipe I will explore is its Cambodian cousin, the Cambodian Saraman curry, which I mentioned above.

If you want to make a classic dish for this paste here’s our Cambodian chicken curry recipe.

Cambodian Red Kroeung Curry Paste Recipe

Cambodian Chicken Curry Recipe. Copyright 2019 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Cambodian Red Kroeung Curry Paste Recipe

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.
Adapted from Authentic Cambodian Recipes (now out of print).
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Course Curry Paste
Cuisine Cambodian / Khmer
Servings made with recipe4
Calories 32 kcal

Ingredients
 
 

Red Kroeung

  • 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

Instructions
 

  • Dry roast all the ingredients (apart from the shrimp paste) individually over a low heat until fragrant.
  • Wrap the shrimp paste in aluminium foil and toast over low heat until fragrant.
  • In a mortar, pound the ingredients in the order listed with a pestle. When a smooth paste is formed and it’s impossible to make out any individual ingredients, add the shrimp paste.
  • The paste will keep for a few days in the fridge in a container with a layer of oil on top of the finished paste.

Nutrition

Calories: 32kcalCarbohydrates: 6gProtein: 2gFat: 1gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 14mgSodium: 47mgPotassium: 87mgFiber: 1gSugar: 1gVitamin C: 4mgCalcium: 32mgIron: 1mg

Please do let us know if you make this Cambodian curry paste called kroeung and you use it in a Cambodian dish as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.

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AUTHOR BIO

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Terence Carter is an editorial food and travel photographer and infrequent travel writer with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food. After living in the Middle East for a dozen years, he settled in South-East Asia a dozen years ago with his wife, travel and food writer and sometime magazine editor Lara Dunston.

29 thoughts on “The Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung – A Cambodian Cuisine Essential”

  1. 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. 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. Delicious. I was hoping for spicier food in Cambodia, but the flavors were wonderful. I would be happy eating that all the time.

  4. 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!
    T

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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 ?

  8. 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.

    Cheers,

    T

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

  10. 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.

    T

  11. 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.

  12. Ok, thanks Michael. We’re currently working on a cookbook here in Cambodia and the ‘Khmer’ Vs ‘Cambodian’ debates are frequent!

    T

  13. 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?

  14. 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…

  15. 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.

  16. 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.
    T

  17. 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?

  18. I just had a bowl of green curry in Siem Riep. I found it tastless, almost like a pea soup with star anise and cinnamon. No basil no chilies. The cook said tourists don’t like spicy. I’m going to try a bowl at a more upscale place to see if the cook falls short or if its a different style.

  19. Hmmm… Cambodians don’t really do ‘green curries’ as such… sounds like you might have eaten at a tourist restaurant serving a kind of Thai-Cambodian fusion to please the tourists…? A lot of those sorts of restaurants exist unfortunately, especially on and around Pub Street, where we do not recommend you eat. This is because little is done to promote Cambodian food and staff don’t often have experience of Thai cuisine to explain what distinguishes Cambodian food from Thai food. Tourists who come here have often come via Thailand and are more familiar with Thai food and will ask for red and green curries, so over the years the tourist restaurants have just adapted the food and created a sort of Thai-Cambodian fusion to please tourists.

    Cambodian food is different to Thai, although there are certainly a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to the Cambodian-Chinese food and Thai-Chinese food, particularly the street food, as you’d expect. But Khmer food, the food of Cambodia’s indigenous people (who do not have Chinese heritage) is quite different to Thai food and I explain how in this post: https://grantourismotravels.com/2016/08/20/dispelling-cambodian-cuisine-myths/ and this post: https://grantourismotravels.com/2017/08/15/cambodian-food/

    Cambodians use some basil and some chili in their cooking, but they tend to use a lot more lemongrass, kaffir lime, turmeric, galangal, garlic, and shallots… so their curries are ‘gentle’ and more fragrant. You’ll find those ingredients in the yellow-green coloured, curry-like, fish-based coconut broth that goes with the nom banh chok (fermented rice noodles). But no star anise and cinnamon in that. Cambodians use star anise, cardamom and some other dry spices in their Saraman curry. Chilies tend to be served in a small dish on the side – and you can ask for this – and people add to their taste. I have Cambodian friends who love spicy food and use a lot of chili, and I have friends who don’t and never add it.

    There is definitely a general perception amongst Cambodians that most tourists don’t eat spicy, simply for the fact that most tourists don’t like spicy food. So you really need to tell people if you want chili added to a dish or ask for a small bowl of sliced chilies as some locals do.

    For the best traditional, home cooking-style, authentic Cambodian food, start with Sugar Palm. Make sure to try their fish amok (amok trei), a steamed fish curry. They also do a good traditional curry. Their prahok k’tis is also one of the best. This is their fish amok: It takes 40 minutes, as it’s made from scratch, so order it as soon as you sit down: https://grantourismotravels.com/2017/05/23/cambodian-fish-amok-recipe/ Then try Malis for a more refined take on traditional Cambodian food. Their Saraman curry is a must here – very authentic – but this does have star anise and some dry spices in it, however, it’s very rich and complex. Chanrey Tree also offers a rather elegant version of traditional Cambodian food: https://grantourismotravels.com/2016/07/26/best-siem-reap-cambodian-restaurants/

    If you want to see how younger Cambodian chefs are experimenting with Cambodian cuisine, try Mahob Khmer (for modern Cambodian), Embassy and Mie Cafe (not a cafe at all but a lovely restaurant, especially at night) for a European-Cambodian fusion, and the super-casual but fun Pou: https://grantourismotravels.com/2018/04/10/new-cambodian-cuisine/

    More casual is Spoons (great for lunch) where I recommend all the appetisers plus the forest sausage, which are a great introduction to Cambodian street food. You’ll find it on both links above.

    We’d love to hear your feedback on on those at the end of your trip. And please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help with anything else. I have great drivers and guides I use. Enjoy!

  20. Thank you so much for this! Even in our Khmer-American community there is confusion about kroeungs and how many they are and what the recipes are. Great explanation!

  21. Thanks Nita, we know it’s so frustrating! We have one cookbook here by a French chef and all he uses is yellow kroeung! I mean a saraman kroeung is so different to that.

  22. Terence, this was such a great explanation. I wish they explained this in the cooking class we did in Siem Reap. We were so confused and didn’t understand the differences between Thai and Cambodian pastes. We’ve been using Thai pastes and wondering why our dishes didn’t taste as we remembered them. Thank you!

  23. Greetings Kerry,
    Thanks for that. Some are ‘similar’ such as the red paste, but then they taste very different, such as the green curry paste. Many restaurants in Siem Reap just use Thai pastes and I saw a red curry chicken recipe the other day on a well-known Australian website that called for Thai curry paste as the first ingredient. We need to get the word out that they’re not the same!
    Cheers
    T

  24. Hi, I just made this paste after visiting the local Asian market – it smells amazing. I your photo with the chicken pieces, is that sweet potato in there or just potato with the sauce over it?
    Keen to make this tonight!
    THanks5 stars

  25. Hi Liz, so pleased to hear you made the kroeung! It’s sweet potato — I think! I will double-check with Terence :) Please let us know how the actual curry goes. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment :)

  26. Hi Liz, yes it is indeed sweet potato. We did this curry (kroeung) recipe so long ago, I did not go back and put in the link to the full recipe for the dish (I’ve fixed this, thanks!):
    https://grantourismotravels.com/cambodian-chicken-curry-recipe/

    There is a tip that I’ve taken on from Thai food guru David Thompson and that is to cook the (sweet) potato separately in water mixed with a little chicken stock and only add the (sweet) potato to the curry as your about to take it off the heat. He feels that the starch coming off the potato ‘muddies’ the flavour of the curry – and I agree.
    Thanks for your comment and thanks for making me update these posts!
    Cheers
    T

  27. Hi guys!

    First of all I wanted to thank you, your recipes on grantourismo have been a great help for me!
    As a first generation Cambodian and living far from my parents as a college student, I’d often try to mimmick the taste of home but never quite got the right thing. But I was really surprised with how your recipes turned out: not only were they delicious but also super authentic, they tasted just like my parent’s.
    I wandered around your website (I’m a bit late ahaha) and found that you guys had the creation of a Khmer cookbook in mind, I just wanted to know if it’s still in the process because I already know it would be a wonderful and authentic book.

    Cheers!5 stars

  28. Hello Baptiste,
    Lovely to hear from you and thanks for the kind words. That really means something coming from a Cambodian. Much appreciated :)
    We’ve lived in Siem Reap for 10 years and cook and eat Cambodian food regularly, and interview and observe chefs and cooks, and, yes, we’re still working on the cookbook – it’s been a struggle to finish it due to a lack of finances (we spent the pandemic in Siem Reap, and like everyone after borders shut and tourism shut down, lost all work – Siem Reap was a ghost town for 2.5 years). Now the challenges are raising funds to finish the research/photography trips we need to do with a driver, my photographer husband and translator — I only speak mahob Khmer! ;) — and finding a publisher. But I’m putting every bit of energy into that now. I’m determined to get it published. I do have a Patreon page which you can join for as little as the price of a cup of coffee each month, and I’m trying hard to post more regular updates and thoughts there.
    Thank you for dropping by!
    Lara

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