Gastronomy : Herbs and spices, virtues and unique role in Khmer cuisine

Cambodian cuisine would not be what it is without its lavish addition of herbs to flavour, decorate and give balance to its elaborate array of dishes. Here’s our (non-exhaustive) guide to some of our favourites.

Turmeric, roots and powder Turmeric, roots and powder

Turmeric
An essential ingredient, even a must-have, in Southeast Asian cuisine, is used to diffuse warm colors, aromas and subtle flavors. Close to both ginger and orange with a hint of bitterness, it is used in many preparations: desserts, carries, and many others.

Centenary
The use of this spice dates back several hundred years. It is not limited to culinary preparations. Turmeric, known for its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, is also widely used in Ayurvedic medicine for a wide range of ailments from stomach ailments to Alzheimer’s disease.

In Cambodia, turmeric has another role as a storyteller
The uniqueness of Cambodian food comes from its unique blend of cultures and influences. This is a main feature of the Cambodian cuisine offered at Malis. This restaurant honors not only traditional Khmer cuisine, but also recipes and ingredients that reflect the history of Cambodia. It evokes the journeys of Indian and Chinese traders, travelers and adventurers and French settlers, not to mention neighbors to the east and west.

Turmeric is one of the legacies of these early Indian traders who had a significant impact on the course of the kingdom’s history. And, it is still found in some of Cambodia’s signature dishes such as Nom Banh Chok, Fish Amok, as well as in Kroeung, the aromatic paste that accompanies so many classic local recipes.

Kroeung
Kroeung might sound like the curry pastes many of us know from Thai cuisine, except for two basic characteristics: there is often no chili, and there is turmeric.

Kroeung is based on eight ingredients: lemon grass, kafir lime peel, lime leaves, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots and sometimes chilies. The result is spicy, but more subtle than the fiery heat associated with Thai carry.

When the Cambodian dish needs chilies, as in a red carry, for example, they are added to the paste. However, these chillies are much less hot than those used in Thailand.

Kroeung can be prepared in different ways, giving different flavors and colors. The yellow colored Kroeung paste, for example, is used as a marinade; for Samlor Machu Kroeung, a pork rib stew; or for Prahok K’tis, the famous fish Amok.

Sawtooth (chi barang)
Originally a native of Mexico, this herb is also known as long coriander, which may be a result of confusion over its original name, culantro. That said, the scent of cilantro and culantro are similar, even if the leaves are different and sawtooth is even more pungent. The taste is earthier though, with a slightly bitter finish. This herb is most often seen in the rich array of green herbs that may used as a garnish for soups and stews.

Rice Paddy (m’am)
A fragrant, delicate herb with an attractive floral, citrus taste and a hint of cumin, rice paddy is an indispensable ingredient for many soups into which it may be chopped just before serving or presented as part of the bouquet of herbs on the table for addition by the happy slurper.

Noni Leaves (slok ngo)
A vital ingredient in Cambodia’s famed Amok, the leaves of the noni fruit tree impart a bitter, astringent element to offset the sweetness of the coconut milk in this dish. The fruit itself — a part of the coffee family sometimes called Indian mulberry — is not ragingly popular, thanks to its pungent odour, but noni is highly reputed for its health benefits.

Chinese Chives (ka’chhai)
The central ingredient in one of Cambodia’s most delicious street food snacks — num ka’chhai, or chive cake — Chinese chives, which are stronger and more garlicky than the Western equivalent — are popular additions to soups and noodle dishes. The delicate flowers are also eaten, and make attractive garnishes.

Lemon Basil
With a lovely lemon-camphor aroma and peppery-lemon flavour, this is a valuable addition to noodle or fish curry dishes. Especially used in Samlor Machu, where citrus flavours dominate.

Peppermint (chi ankam derm)
Fierier than its spearmint cousin, peppermint has strong menthol notes and a fresh, cool aftertaste. This makes it a refreshing and popular addition to dishes such as Cambodia’s national dish (according to some) Num Banh Chok, but also as part of the set up for Pleah Sach Ko, the Khmer version of beef carpaccio.

Original French article written by Nikki Sullivan & CG

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