kroeung (or herb paste) is the key to the exotic flavors and aromas of
Khmer cuisine made from lemon grass, galangal, rhizome, turmeric, zest
of kaffir lime, garlic and shallot. These seven herbs are supplemented
by either or a combination of dried red chillies, grilled or steamed kapi
or prahok, roasted peanuts and julienned cubanelle peppers which may or
may not be pounded into a paste together with the key herbs. They can
simply be blended in or added during the cooking.
There are three main categories
of kroeung. The general kroeung - green, yellow and red - are used to make
most of the soups, stir fries and stuffings. The individual kroeungs are
for specific dishes, such Samla Kako that has roasted and grind rice as
an important component. And finally, the royal kroeungs have additional
herbs, such as the leaf of the kaffir lime and the roots of Chinese parsley.
heart to achieving the right kroeung lies not only in the freshness of the
herbs and ingredients, and the quantities used, but also in the art of pounding
in a clay or stone mortar. Nowadays in the more modern homes in Cambodia,
electric food mixers are used for convenience but still the overwhelming
preference is for the manual pounding of the herbs which better brings out
their full flavors and aromas.
is a logic in the pounding of the kroeung.
First it is important
to know how to cut each herb to ensure that pounding will reduce it into
a paste. The lemon grass leaf and the kaffir lime leaf have to be given
special attention when cutting because of their tough fiber component.
The leaves have to be sliced extremely fine.
Secondly, always start
with the toughest ingredients, which need longer to pound. The hardest
are the leaves, therefore start off with them. Khmer cooks usually throw
into their mortar the leaf slices, small pieces of galangal and turmeric,
and zest of kaffir lime, and pound them together into a smooth consistency.
They would follow with the medium tough herbs - rhizome. Garlic and shallots
are always last because they are watery. Liquid makes it difficult to
crush the herbs. A tip when the kroeung is too liquid is to spoon it out
and using your hand, squeeze out the excess liquid into a small bowl on
the side, to be returned to the kroeung after the completion of the pounding.
Thirdly, the type of
mortar and the weight of the pounding are also important. There are three
main types of mortar in use in Cambodia, stone, clay and wood, each with
their own shape and qualities. They are used differently depending on
the needed smoothness and consistency of what is being pounded. The stone
mortar is for heavy pounding and a complete crush of all ingredients.
The clay mortar
is for a smooth consistency of herbs and ingredients, and the wood mortar
is preferred for simple bok (pounding dishes) such as Bok L'hong Khmer
- which is lightly pound green papaya salad with smoked fish. The tip
is to pound firmly aiming at the bottom of the mortar.
The general kroeung
which I have divided according to their colour, obtained from the key
The green kroeung:
2/3 leaf of lemon grass
1/3 stalk lemon grass
This kroeung uses more leaf than
stalk of the lemon grass, and the prahok is added by scrapping
its flesh through a sieve in the boiling soup. The main dishes are
the Samla Prahae (green curry with fish), fish meat can be whole
or crumbled into flakes and pounded together with the kroeung, such
as in the Samla Khmer Num Banh-Chok (rice noodle Siem Reap style)
eaten with the Tik Pa-em (sweet sauce) and fresh vegetables.
The yellow kroeung:
Stalk of lemon grass
This kroeung uses stalk of lemon
grass only to cook the Samla Mchou Kroeung, which is a sour soup.
It is also used in stir-fries of frogs, chicken and beef.
It is also mixed into the stuffing for frogs, adding roasted and
ground peanuts, and julienned cubanelle peppers, and seasoning.
|The red kroeung:
Dried red chillies
Stalk of lemon grass
||The dried red chillies
used are always washed, soaked, drained and chopped fine.
This kroeung is used to make the Samla Khtih and the Samla Kari.
grass is appreciated for its distinctive lemon-scented
flavour and is a must in all kroeungs. In Cambodia, both the leaves
and stalk are used, together or separately depending on the dish.
The leaves have a stronger flavour and add a light green colour to
soups. Lemon grass also has a prominent place in a variety of Khmer
dishes. In soups it is cut into long pieces and crushed to help release
the full aroma when boiled. It is sliced thinly for stir fries and
salads. It can also be boiled to make lemon grass tea and pounded
with various herbs to make an effective mosquito repellent. Remove
several outer layers before using.
Kaffir lime has an intensely fragrant zest
but almost no juice. Its flavour and tint of bitterness blend well
with other ingredients to make the kroeung. The leaves of the kaffir
lime are also important in Khmer cooking. Commonly used fresh, the
leaves are sliced very fine and added to salads and other dishes or
pounded into royal kroeungs. Torn leaves add flavour to soups and
the Khmer curry (kari). Whole kaffir lime is also made into a damnapp,
or Cambodian fruit preserve.
is also known as greater galangal.It
has a gingery flavour and peppery taste. Used primarily in the kroeung,
thickly sliced galangal also helps to balance the strong flavour
of fish in soups. When cut into small pieces and pan-roasted to
release its full aroma, it strengthens the flavour of sauces.
to the ginger family. Smaller and thinner in shape than ginger,
its distinctive bright orange flesh adds colour to dishes. It has
little taste but brings a special balance to the other ingredients
in the kroeung. Turmeric both in its fresh form and in powder will
colour your fingers and clothes, so be careful when using it. Turmeric
is believed to help skin problems and aid the digestive system.
also known as lesser galangal. It is appreciated for its mild
flavour and crunchy texture. It is an important part of the kroeung
and is also used fresh in soups and seafood dishes. It grows in a
bunch of yellowish-brown thin fingers. No peeling is necessary.
Garlic is a most common ingredient in Khmer cooking.
Its unique flavour and pungent aroma is a must in the kroeung. It
is also crushed or chopped finely and browned as a base in any stir-fry.
Thin slices fried until golden and crispy are also used to top dishes.
Garlic is pickled to eat as an accompaniment to appetisers and some
main dishes. Thin slices of pickled garlic also bring their peppery,
salty and sour taste to soups. Garlic comes in several sizes with
slightly different intensity in taste and flavour. Many believe that
it has healing properties, the most prominent being its supposed ability
to cleanse the blood.
are another common ingredient in Khmer cooking and are often used
side by side with garlic. Shallots enhance the kroeung with their
strong flavour and subtle sweet and bitter taste. Like garlic, the
natural moisture which is released easily during pounding is the perfect
blending agent in the making of the kroeung, as the other ingredients
are drier. Shallots are also sliced or chopped finely and browned
together with garlic as a base for stir-fries. Golden crispy slices
are also used on top of dishes as a garnish as well as for texture,
taste and aroma.
Red Chillies are usually soaked, drained and chopped into a paste
before use. They bring a red colour and a hot flavour to the kroeung.
Dried red chillies are sometimes served as a side dish to be added
to Chinese noodle soups sold across the country, and to French Baguette,
NOTE: There is an argument
that there is no "curry" in Cambodia except for the Khmer kari
which uses curry powder. In this book, I have referred to soups containing
a kroeung and coconut milk as curry, in the typically western understanding
of the term. Other dishes which use a kroeung are called "spicy stir-fries"
or "stir-fries with spices", and "spicy soups" or
"soup with spices".
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