This traditional Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei makes a Cambodian ceviche usually made with a local firm white fish ‘cooked’ in citrus juice. It’s an ancient Khmer dish that feels contemporary, which is why it can be found on the menus of Cambodia’s finest Cambodian restaurants. We use salmon for this dish, which is much-loved by Cambodians, which I also adore.
I love this Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei, which makes a wonderful, light, refreshing, and fragrant fish dish that is Cambodia’s ceviche and another of our best salmon recipes. The Khmer word trei, also written as trey, means fish, and phlea – also written as phlear, plear, ph’lea, and plea – is a type of raw salad where the fish or meat is generally ‘cooked’ in citrus juice.
I’m calling this an ‘ancient’ dish because it is a very old dish, dating back to the Khmer Empire, probably older. To find out just how old this dish is, however, you’re going to have to wait until our Cambodian cookbook and Cambodian culinary history is published, which will include lots of original previously unpublished research.
Before I tell you all about this delicious Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei – which I know you will love if you’re a fan of ceviches – I have a favour to ask. Grantourismo is reader-funded. If you’ve used and enjoyed our Cambodian recipes, or any of our recipes, please consider supporting Grantourismo.
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Khmer Raw Fish Salad Recipe for the Cambodian Ceviche Called Phlea Trei
Before the pandemic when we used to have work and an income and would eat out at restaurants all the time, we’d often dine at Cambodia’s best Cambodian restaurants, which happened to be here in Siem Reap. (Sadly, most Siem Reap restaurants are closed; some permanently, others until Cambodia opens its borders to tourists again. When we have a firm opening date, we’ll update the guide I just linked to.)
If this Khmer raw fish salad was on the menu at Siem Reap restaurant – or the raw Khmer beef salad, which I nicknamed ‘Cambodian carpaccio’ – I wouldn’t think twice about ordering either. They always tasted sublime and they would be a visual feast for the eyes, the plates prettily strewn with edible flowers – the use of which is traditional, not a contemporary flourish.
Fortunately, Terence makes a delicious and exceptionally pretty phlea trei with salmon, which he first created from a classic Khmer raw fish salad recipe some years ago when we were experimenting with creative Cambodian canapés for summer entertaining. Remember this?
I’m not sure why it’s taken us years to share our Cambodian ceviche recipe but here it is, which is where I should also explain why I’m likening it to a ceviche when phlea trei really is its own dish and is actually a great deal older.
I’m only calling our raw fish salad a Cambodian ceviche to give you an idea as to what to expect, because ceviche is so well-known around the world, but, sadly, I’m sure most of our readers wouldn’t have heard of phlea trei – in the same way that far more people know, say, banh mi than they know num pang.
The reality is that phlea trei deserves to be known. It is such an old dish, that I call it an ancient Khmer dish. The word ‘ancient’ gets thrown around a lot in Southeast Asia – especially when it comes to tourism marketing and promotion – to describe everything from a centuries-old temple to a heritage house.
But ‘ancient’ doesn’t have the same meaning in ‘the East’ as it does in ‘the West’. In my long experience in Southeast Asia, it mostly means ‘very old’. ‘Antique’ is often closer in meaning, or ‘medieval’ if we’re talking history and archaeology.
But when I use ‘ancient’ here to describe our Cambodian ceviche, trust me on this one. All will be revealed when our epic Cambodia culinary history and Cambodian cookbook is eventually published.
I also wanted to explain why I’m using ‘Khmer’ here instead of ‘Cambodian’ to describe this Khmer raw fish salad. Cambodia’s Khmer people comprise the majority of the country’s population, and as my research revealed this dish to be very old, I believe it’s a native dish, free of other influence.
Whereas to call a dish ‘Cambodian’ suggests that it’s of the nation Cambodia, comprised of citizens, in addition to Khmer citizens, of many minorities, from the Chinese to the Chams, as well as people of mixed ethnic and cultural heritages, whose dishes would incorporate culinary influences other than Khmer.
As an example, if I’m talking about a stir-fry dish made in a wok, which obviously had its origins in China and Chinese culinary culture, even if it was 1,500 years ago, then I’ll usually call that a Cambodian stir-fry.
As for our Khmer raw fish salad recipe, it’s worth noting that there are two main types of salad in Khmer cuisine, and as a consequence Cambodian cuisine, and that’s a phlea, made from raw protein that’s marinated in lime juice among other ingredients, and is ‘cooked’ by the citrus juice.
The other kind of salad is called a nhoam or gnoam, and this refers to salads which are typically tossed salads, such as this Cambodian cucumber salad or nhoam trasak or this green mango salad with dried smoked fish or nhoam svay trei chhae. It also describes a salad where the key protein – beef, chicken, fish, seafood etc – is cooked by heat in a wok or on a grill, before being combined with raw vegetables, aromatic herbs, a dressing, and ingredients that add texture such as dried shrimp or peanuts. An example is this Cambodian grilled beef salad or nhoam sach ko.
Within that category, there are also boks and larbs. A bok is a pounded salad, made in a mortar and pestle, such as this Cambodian green papaya salad or bok lahong, which could be likened to a Thai som tam or Thai green papaya salad, with which most readers would probably be more familiar, while a larb – or larb, lab, laap, lap etc – is a minced meat salad, made with either finely chopped mince or mince that’s been pounded in a mortar and pestle, such as this Cambodian pork larb. Just a few tips to making this Khmer raw fish salad recipe.
Tips to Making this Khmer Raw Fish Salad Recipe for Phlea Trei, Cambodia’s Ceviche
Just a few quick tips for making this Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei or Cambodian ceviche. Phlea trei is usually made with firm white-fleshed local fish. Coastal dwellers would use ocean fish, obviously, while Cambodians who live inland would make phlea trei using freshwater fish from the lake or river.
Freshwater fish in Cambodia can often taste very muddy. If you’ve been on the Tonle Sap or Great Lake or seen the Siem Reap River, you’ll understand why. Most Cambodians don’t mind that earthy taste at all, however, chefs will more often than not use an ocean fish for their raw fish salads, and, interestingly, one of the biggest pandemic trends in Cambodia has been a passion for salmon.
It’s not unusual for Cambodians to pick up some sashimi quality salmon from the supermarket on a Friday evening and indulge in homemade sashimi, which they dip in soy sauce and wasabi or even fish sauce and Cambodian dipping sauces. Check out YouTube and you’ll see Cambodian cooks making everything from salmon congee to salmon salads.
We’ve therefore opted for salmon for our Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei – I also love salmon! – and because it’s sashimi quality we’ve not marinated the salmon and allowed it to ‘cook’ in the citrus-based dressing as it traditionally is, however, if you’re using another kind of raw fish you’ll probably want to do that. In that case, marinate the fish in the dressing in the fridge in a covered container for at least 20 minutes.
The dressing we’re using is fairly traditional, aside from a couple of additional ingredients, such as lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and zest – which are still traditional Cambodian ingredients, they’re just not usually used in a Khmer raw fish salad recipe.
With the traditional recipe, the marinade is generally squeezed from the fish, the fish is set aside, and the marinade is simmered on the stove, allowed to cool, and then used as a dressing. We’ve not done that in this case as it wasn’t necessary due to the quality of salmon.
We’ve also not strewn the salmon with pretty edible flowers, as they’re currently not in season here, however, feel free to do that, as it’s very traditional – even ancient!
Khmer Raw Fish Salad Recipe for Phlea Trei
- Juice of 3 limes
- Zest of 1 lime
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 garlic clove finely diced
- 50 g lemongrass white end only, finely sliced
- 1 red birds eye chilli deseeded, finely sliced (optional)
- 1 purple shallot finely diced
- 50 g long bean finely sliced
- 1 tomato finely diced
- 2 tsp bean sprouts blanched
- 2 tsp peanuts peeled and crushed
- 200 g salmon sashimi quality, thinly sliced into strips
- 2 tbsp aromatic herbs such as coriander, mint and basil
- In a mixing bowl, combine the lime juice, lime zest, fish sauce, sugar, salt, garlic, and kaffir lime leaves well until the sugar has dissolved. Try it and adjust to your taste. While the funkiness of the fish sauce, citrus of the lime, and perfume of the aromatics should dominate, the flavours should be balanced: if it’s too sour or too salty for you, add a little more sugar.
- Add the shallots, beans, tomato, bean sprouts, peanuts, and salmon pieces to the mixing bowl and combine well with the dressing to ensure it is evenly distributed.
- Arrange in large glasses, pour any leftover dressing over the salmon, then garnish with the aromatic herbs and serve immediately.
Please do let us know if you make our Khmer raw fish salad recipe for phlea trei as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.