The Cambodian curry paste called kroeung is an irreplaceable ingredient in Khmer cooking and yellow kroeung is the most versatile of the curry pastes, used in many classic Cambodian dishes, especially soups and dips.
Khmer yellow kroeung paste is the basis for many classic Khmer and Cambodian dishes, including amok trey (fish amok), and soups such as samlor machou*, which is why it’s commonly called kroeung samlor machou.
The paste is also used a marinade for the popular street food snack, charcoal-grilled beef skewers, and in prahok k’tis — the ubiquitous Khmer dip made with minced pork. (Recipe to come.)
The yellow kroeung paste gets its colour from lemongrass and the lemongrass here in Cambodia is generally tougher than that found in Thailand, which is why in the local markets you’ll find the lemongrass already sliced thinly to make pounding the paste much easier.
Two of the ingredients for the yellow kroeung paste can be difficult to find outside Southeast Asia — kaffir limes (krauch soeuch in Khmer) and fresh turmeric.
Oddly enough you’ll often find kaffir lime leaves in markets, but not the limes themselves as they’re quite bitter. If you must, you can substitute the kaffir limes with the kaffir lime leaves, and you can substitute fresh turmeric with ground turmeric or turmeric powder quite successfully.
As usual with a curry paste, when you are starting to grind the ingredients in the mortar and pestle, start with the hardest ingredients and gradually grind in the softer ingredients.
The paste is best used on the same day, as it tends to dry out, and submerging it in oil to preserve it doesn’t really work as quite often it’s used just gently mixed into coconut milk and the oil is an unwanted addition.
A quick note on working with fresh turmeric — it stains your skin like crazy so it’s best to wear gloves while handling it.
- 200 g lemongrass stalks peeled, chopped and outer layers discarded
- 1 tbsp galangal peeled and chopped finely
- 1 tsp kaffir lime zest
- 1 tsp turmeric peeled and chopped finely
- 5 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped finely
- 2 shallots peeled and chopped finely
- Place the lemongrass in a well-supported mortar and pound with the pestle until you can no longer see the rings of the lemongrass and it's all mashed up.
- Add the galangal, turmeric and kaffir lime zest and pound until they're incorporated into the mashed lemongrass.
- Add the garlic and pound and then add the shallots and pound.
- The finished paste will still have some fibres from the lemongrass but should otherwise be quite smooth.
There has been some debate in the media recently on the use of ‘kaffir’, which is a word of Arabic origin used by Muslims to refer to non-Muslims or atheists. The word ‘kaffir’ is considered racist in South Africa, where use of the term ‘makrut’, as in makrut limes, is being encouraged. If you’re an English speaker and can’t pronounce the Khmer translation ‘krauch soeuch’ and you use the term ‘makrut’ in Cambodian markets, most vendors won’t know what you want. Or, as the word ‘makrut’ originates from Thailand, they may just be pretending they don’t know. Best to learn the Khmer translation or use kaffir lime here in Cambodia, where you’re not going to offend anyone.
A recipe for prahok k’tis, one of our favourite Cambodian dips, is coming next!