The world has yet to welcome Cambodian cuisine. While Thai food has a firm place in our hearts, London has its own Vietnamese quarter and Malaysian restaurants are becoming increasingly popular, the food of Cambodia is largely neglected. Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as being “less sophisticated” than its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, which seems to me a highly unfair accusation.
I spent a week in Cambodia last September, and feasted heartily and memorably. My favourite dish was the classic (and wonderfully-named) amok, a coconut-based curry often containing fish, steamed in banana leaves until the sauce thickens. Also notable were several delicious stir-fries incorporating pineapple, steamed doughy buns filled with meat and egg, and some fabulous sweet cakes featuring gooey banana encased in sticky rice, then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled – perfect sustaining fuel for exploring the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat in the Cambodian summer heat.
For me, Cambodian food is just as exciting as Thai or Vietnamese, particularly its curries. These are often based on a spice paste called kroeung, a heady mixture of galangal, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli, given a savoury kick by fermented shrimp paste. To this is added coconut milk, more lime leaves and a little sugar, resulting in the most delicious sweet-sour-salty-coconutty curry sauce, fragrant with lime and lemongrass, hot with chilli and deeply savoury from fish sauce and shrimp paste. It has all the flavours of the Thai food we know and love, so why don’t we start making a place for Cambodian food in our hearts and stomachs?
This aubergine curry is a wonderful introduction to Cambodian cooking. I’ve kept it vegetarian because it’s so rich and wonderful on its own that it doesn’t need meat, but you could of course add chicken or pork if you’re so inclined. I love the way the aubergines soften into silky unctuousness, soaking up the beautiful coconut broth. The smells emanating from the pan will transport you instantly to sunnier climes.
While the list of ingredients for this is long, it is a very easy dish – all the spice paste ingredients go in the blender, then you have your curry base – just add garlic, shallots, chilli, lime leaves, coconut milk and stock. You can also vary the vegetables used – butternut squash, pumpkin or sweet potato work very well, as do cherry tomatoes and baby corn.
If you are lucky enough to have an Asian market or supermarket near you, you should be able to pick up all these ingredients in a single shop. You can find fresh lime leaves in the freezer section – they are much better than dried. However, if you have no such resources available, most major supermarkets will stock all the below ingredients, except for fresh lime leaves. You can buy dried kaffir lime leaves in most supermarkets, which can be substituted in this recipe, although I would suggest also adding the zest of a fresh lime, as dried lime leaves lack the zesty punch of their fresh counterparts. I’ve listed substitutions in the recipe below in case you can’t find some of the more esoteric ingredients, so there should be nothing to stop you bringing a delicious little pot of Cambodia into your kitchen at home!
For the kroeung (spice paste – makes enough for two curries):
For the curry:
First, make the kroeung. Roughly chop the galangal/ginger, turmeric (if using fresh), garlic cloves, lemongrass, shallots, lime leaves and chillies.
Put in a blender with the shrimp paste, peppercorns, salt and oil, and blitz to a coarse paste.
Set aside (it makes enough for two curries – you can freeze the remainder or keep it in the fridge for a couple of weeks).
For the curry, heat the oil in a large pan (preferably non-stick). Add the garlic, shallots and chilli, and cook over a medium heat until starting to colour.
Add the kroeung, fish sauce and sugar, and continue to cook for a couple of minutes until the mixture begins to darken. Pour in the coconut milk and chicken stock, then add the lime leaves and aubergines.
Partially cover and cook for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the aubergines are just tender, then remove the lid, add the beans and cook for another 5 minutes, until they are tender but still crunchy.
Taste the sauce and check the seasoning – you might want a little more sugar, chilli or fish sauce. Scatter with the basil and serve immediately, with steamed rice and lime wedges to squeeze over.