The Kroeung

  The 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.
   
   
 The 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.

 There 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 herb are:

The green kroeung:
2/3 leaf of lemon grass
1/3 stalk lemon grass
Galangal
Rhizome
Turmeric
Garlic
Prahok (optional)

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
Galangal
Turmeric
Garlic
Shallot
Prahok (optional)

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
Galangal
Turmeric
Garlic
Shallot
Kapi (optional)

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.
    Lemon 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.

    Galangal 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.

    Turmeric belongs 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.

    Rhizome is 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.

 
   Shallots 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.
 
   Dried 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, Cambodian Style.

   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".

top of page