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.
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.
If you want to make a classic dish for this paste here’s our Cambodian chicken curry recipe.
Cambodian Red Kroeung Curry Paste Recipe
- 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
- 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.
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.