This Cambodian vegetable congee recipe makes a delicious, healthy vegetable-driven rice porridge or borbor in Khmer, with a base of kroeung, a Cambodian spice paste. Traditionally made in a pot on a clay brazier, over an open fire or on a gas burner, I’ve adapted the recipe for rice cookers. This is a vegetarian congee with tips for vegans.
While most households in Southeast Asia probably have a rice cooker, not all Southeast Asians make rice in a rice cooker as ‘Uncle Roger’ would have you believe, as I explained in Make Rice Not War, a celebration of rice cooking diversity, and my guide to how to cook rice around the world, with recipes and tips from 66 rice cooking experts – chefs, cookbook authors, food writers, food bloggers, home cooks, and a MasterChef contestant.
In Cambodia, for example, steamed rice is still mostly cooked in a pot on a clay brazier or directly over an open fire. One of the positives of living in the first apartment we moved to after the pandemic began last year was that we got to watch our neighbours light a fire in their yard each day on which they’d place a large metal pot and cook their rice and soups.
This Cambodian vegetable congee recipe makes another rice dish that is traditionally cooked in a pot over fire or a gas burner, a Cambodian or Khmer borbor or rice porridge that has a kroeung base and is typically vegetable-driven, but not always vegetarian and never vegan, but it can easily be adapted to be both.
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Cambodian Vegetable Congee Recipe Adapted for Rice Cookers – Vegetarian with Tips for Vegans
This hearty Cambodian vegetable congee recipe makes a kroeung-based vegetable-driven Khmer borbor or rice porridge that most frequently gets referred to as a Cambodian congee. This recipe is inspired by a couple of dishes that are made in homes and sold at street food stalls, mobile carts and neighbourhood restaurants in Cambodia.
The first Cambodian dish that was my inspiration is most commonly called ‘borbor phe’ and while ‘borbor’ means rice porridge or congee in Khmer, I’ve never met a Cambodian who can tell me what ‘phe’ means. Borbor phe, while promoted as a vegetable-driven congee and even vegetarian congee, nearly always comes with snails, sometimes comes with fish, and always with prahok (fermented fish) and fish sauce.
While it’s absolutely delicious, I wanted to create a vegetarian rice porridge more similar to another street food dish in Siem Reap that is ‘same same but different’, a vegetarian borbor without the snails or fish. That dish is often sold at mobile street food carts and food stalls as ‘borbor banlle’ (‘banlle’ means vegetables in Khmer) or ‘borbor kroeung’ to reflect that it’s based on a kroeung (herb and spice paste), unlike other Cambodian congees.
It seems this variation on borbor phe dish has originated in Siem Reap, as friends in other Cambodian cities tell me they’ve never seen it, and perhaps it’s in response to the city’s population of vegetarian and vegan expats or, pre-pandemic, vegetarian and vegan travellers requesting vegetarian or vegan versions of the dish.
Borbor phe is mostly made when the weather starts to cool during the last couple of months of monsoon, in ‘autumn’ or ‘fall’ and ‘winter’ in Cambodia, seasons which most probably aren’t anywhere near as ‘cool’ as your cooler seasons, but it’s all comparative.
Tips to Making this Cambodian Vegetable Congee Recipe
Traditionally, a green or yellow-green kroeung is used to make this Cambodian vegetable congee recipe, so if you don’t have a jar of kroeung in the fridge, then you’ll have to prepare a batch of the Cambodian herb and spice paste first.
Using this kroeung will give you a yellow-green or green rice porridge, which is very desirable for this healthy vegetable-driven dish in the same way it is for the hearty green vegetable soup samlor machou kroeung.
Note, however, that this is a very herbaceous rice porridge, so if you prefer spicy, you have two options. You can add some chilli flakes, chilli paste or chilli sauce, along with any other condiments when you sit down to eat, which is usually what’s done with congee or rice porridge. This is a dish that is made to be customised.
Another option is to add a little fresh red chilli, as I have done, which you can pound in a mortar and pestle, or homemade or store-bought chilli paste if you have some in the fridge, when you add the kroeung – or you could just make this red kroeung instead.
Depending on how much chilli you add, it will change the colour, however, resulting in a yellow-orange colour, rather than a yellow-green or green – or even an orange-red or red colour. There’s nothing wrong with this, but traditionally this colour is not desirable in this dish, so you may not wish to serve it to your Cambodian friends!
It’s essential to fry the kroeung a little to wake up the flavours, so don’t skip this stage. You don’t have to get the wok out and can use a small fry pan or even the mini pan you make your fried eggs in.
Note that olive oil is not traditional – Cambodian cooks prefer to use more neutral cooking oils as their herb and spice pastes have so much flavor and fragrance. I very rarely use it in Cambodian cooking, however, I took inspiration from adding oil to the rice cooking process from the Burmese (and specifically this recipe for coconut rice) and olive oil works so well with this dish.
When it comes to the mixed vegetables for this Cambodian vegetable congee recipe, Cambodian cooks use seasonable vegetables, whatever they can get from the markets (when they’re open!) or whatever they have growing in their yard or on their farm if they live in the countryside or villages.
As we’re currently in a hard lockdown here in Siem Reap and can’t leave home (even markets and supermarkets are closed), I’ve used what we have in the fridge. So feel free to use whatever you can have access to.
As locals typically make this Cambodian vegetable congee recipe in the cooler months, they will use pumpkin, sweet potatoes or carrots and mushrooms, but other popular vegetables are winter melon, taro, gourds, such as luffa gourd, and ivy gourd leaves. Some cooks use a lot of ivy gourd leaves, but if you can’t get hold of these, other options are Chinese greens or spinach or kale and so on.
A traditional Cambodian vegetable borbor recipe not only calls for ingredients such as snails and maybe fish, which we’ve skipped to create a vegetarian rice porridge, but also prahok (fermented fish) and fish sauce. Pescetarians might be happy to use these – at least the fish sauce if they can’t get hold of prahok.
Vegetarians and vegans can easily skip these as there is so much flavor from the kroeung, plus the additional fresh lemongrass, ginger and kaffir lime leaves that I love to add that you seriously won’t miss those fishy funky flavours that Cambodians love so much that distinguish Khmer food.
When your rice cooker automatically turns off, you are going to have a wonderful savoury rice in there that will leave you very satisfied. But as this is a Cambodian vegetable congee recipe, you will need to add more water.
After the rice cooker turns off – which is usually when the water has evaporated – leave it to continue steaming for a few minutes, then open the lid, stir the rice around and fluff it up a bit, then add the recommended amount of boiling water, stir it in thoroughly, close the lid, and allow it to cook for a few more minutes.
Do not allow the rice to cook longer than a few minutes more as you’ll simply be left with mushy over-cooked rice. When making this the first time, you may even wish to check it after a minute or two. The vegetables should be done, but if not, you could transfer the congee to a pot to finish it on the stove. But remember, the longer you leave it, the more the rice will expand as it soaks up the water, so watch it closely and serve immediately.
Cambodian cooks serve their vegetable borbors with an array of garnishes that might include finely sliced cucumbers, snake/long beans, water lily stems, banana flower, rice paddy herb, coriander, and, in season, edible flowers. Street food cooks might just serve a few of these. When making this veggie congee at home, use what’s available, fresh and seasonal.
Rice porridges and congees are customised at the table, however, traditionally, the garnishes for the borbor would have satisfied most Cambodians. These days, street food vendors provide a caddy of condiments on their stall or tiny plastic tables, that might include fish sauce, soy sauce, chilli sauce, such as Thai Sriracha etc, and locals, especially young Cambodians, will liberally douse on a little – or a lot! – of all of these.
Cambodian Vegetable Congee Recipe
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp kroeung paste – yellow kroeung
- 1 red chilli de-seeded, pounded or ½ tsp chilli paste (optional)
- 2 cups jasmine rice rinsed and drained
- water as per your rice cooker indicator
- 1 tsp virgin olive oil
- 200 g pumpkin chopped into cubes
- 100 g sweet potato or taro chopped into cubes
- 200 g carrot sliced into rounds
- 1 corn cob kernels only
- 100 g mushrooms sliced into thirds
- 1 tsp prahok optional
- 2 tbsp fish sauce optional
- ½ tsp salt or to taste
- 1 tsp sugar or to taste
- 1 lemongrass stalk white end only
- 1 knob of fresh ginger chopped into 3-4 pieces
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 400 ml boiling water
- 1 bunch mixed vegetables & herbs finely sliced cucumbers, snake/long beans, water lily stems, banana flower, rice paddy herb, edible flowers, fresh coriander
- If you don’t have a jar of yellow-green kroeung in the fridge, you’ll have to make a batch of the Cambodian herb and spice paste first.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a small pan or wok then fry two tablespoons of kroeung for a minute or two to wake up the flavours – when you can smell the aromas it’s done. If you like spicy food, you could add the pounded red chilli or chilli paste at this point but note that it will change the colour.
- Transfer the kroeung to the rice cooker, then add the rice, water as per the indicator line inside the rice cooker, olive oil, and the suggested mixed vegetables or equivalent vegetables of your choice.
- For a traditional Cambodian rice porridge, add the prahok and fish sauce, and salt and sugar to taste. If you’re making a vegetarian or vegan rice porridge, skip the prahok and fish sauce.
- Add the white end of the lemongrass stalk, ginger pieces and kaffir lime leaves, stir to combine well, closed the lid and turn on your rice cooker.
- When the rice cooker automatically turns off, leave to continue steaming for a few minutes, then open the lid, add 400 ml boiling water, stir in thoroughly, close the lid, and allow to cook for a few more minutes. (Note: the vegetables should be done, but if not done enough for you, transfer the congee to a pot to finish on the stove; the water will evaporate and the rice porridge will thicken, so you’ll have to add more water as necessary.)
- Serve in bowls with dishes of garnish on the side, such as finely sliced cucumbers, snake/long beans, water lily stems, banana flower, rice paddy herb, edible flowers, and a caddy of condiments, such as fish sauce, soy sauce, Sriracha etc for guests to customize their congee.
Please do let us know if you make our Cambodian vegetable congee recipe in the comments below, as we’d love to hear how it turns out for you.