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 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, kroeung is a herb and spice paste rather than a curry paste, as such, particularly as it’s used in more than just curries.
Made fresh daily, both in the home and commercially, it has 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 kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia? Yes and no.
The 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 that sets it apart.
One thing that sets the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung apart from Thai curry pastes is that there is no chilli in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric, which is often sold freshly pounded in markets. You then add the required garlic and shallots when you’re ready to finish the paste.
This goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts.
A Cambodian Saraman curry will 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 — also no surprise given the early history of Cambodia.
Cambodia was greatly affected by the 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, so it had to have impacted the cuisine, and remnants of that influence had to linger.
A Cambodian red curry chicken dish will arrive a little milder than one in Thailand, but the base curry 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).
But what you will find in Cambodia 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 it spicy and will make versions of their classic dishes much spicier than they’re found in restaurants. Having eaten a few home-cooked meals here, I have to agree.
So why are Cambodian curries generally considered milder that 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. But the real reason is that they don’t want to offend the tourists.
Another myth about Cambodian curries is that there are only two curry pastes, red and green.
There are actually five curry pastes that are regularly used in Cambodian cooking; red (kroeung samlar kari), k’tis (kroeung samlar k’tis), Saraman (kroeung samlar saraman), yellow (kroeung samlar m’chou), and green (kroeung prâhoeur).
Some pastes have a specific use such as Saraman, while others, such as the yellow paste, are used as a marinade for meats, stir-fries, stews and soups (‘samlar m’chou’ for instance means ‘sour soup’), and for amok (the famous Cambodian steamed fish ‘soufflé’).