One of the great things about having living in different places is getting to experience difference restaurants. One of the sucky things about having moved a lot is leaving behind dishes I am not sure if I will ever be able to re-create or eat again. The top 3 that come to mind for me–only counting the last 10 years of academic nomadism with my husband–are the Banh Sougnh with pork at Phnom Penh in Cleveland, Ohio, the Goreng Kicap with beef at Bentara in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Creole Chopped Salad at Spatz Cafe and Speakeasy in State College, Pennsylvania.
Of all these, it is the Banh Sougnh and also the Chha Kreoung Ma Rass Prowt (I think of them as sister dishes, as both are curry paste based with coconut milk) from Phnom Penh that have caused us the most frustration. We loved Phnom Penh–affordable and absolutely delicious, we ate there so often that when we stopped by 2 years after moving from there the waitress still recognized us. We begged them to tell us what was in the dish, but she clearly did not think we would find the right ingredients. I suspected that it was more combining ingredients I was already familiar with in an unfamiliar way. But what way? I could never find any recipes, I could not even find any of the key words in any recipes.
Until Curry Cuisine. A collection of recipes from nearly every country that uses the word curry (when translated to English I mean), this book included a basic Cambodian kreoung, which means curry paste, and, more importantly, it was the first time I had managed to find any of the key Cambodian terms from the recipes I was looking for. This was VERY exciting.
This was John’s birthday dinner, a meal he has been looking forward to for some time (suffice to say that February birthdays + toddler/preschool aged children = disaster). So only a month late John got his birthday meal. I toned the celebration down–life is hectic from being sick for so long–and kept it simple at just this one single dish. The one single dish that John told me, in between groans of ecstasy, “I never thought you’d be able to get it right on the first try.”
Truthfully neither did I.
This is not a perfect replica of Phnom Penh’s curry dishes, but the curry is the right flavor. It is quite distinct from Thai curries, and yet without knowing what is in it, it is hard to put your finger on why (I know, having tried for so long). First of all, the yellow and green versions do not have any chile peppers in them; that alone makes them stunningly different (and the red version, which I did not make, only has a few dried chile peppers). The green curry, which I made, includes more of the lemongrass stalk, the green leaves, which is also unusual (to me). The curry also has fresh turmeric root and rhizome root, both of which are less common in Thai curries. The final flavor is less sweet than a Thai curry, although this of course (in my view) should always be done to taste. As with Thai curries, a wet/dry grinder will make your life much easier; for directions on how to make a curry paste without the grinder see my post on green Thai curry.
Banh Sougnh–as far as I know anyway, having only eaten it at Phnom Penh and being unsure what any of the words mean–is a Cambodian dish of rice vermicelli tossed with a curry sauce, lettuce or cabbage, chopped peanuts, and topped with chopped spring rolls. I had already decided to eliminate the spring rolls as being too much work, but the rest of this I thought should be easy enough. Because this was my first time trying to replicate a dish I had no recipe for, I had to guess at how much paste to use. Later I decided it needed more, and just whisked some in. So the measurements that I give for the sauce are approximations. Also, note that because the paste has no chile pepper in it, it is very easy to control the heat in the final dish. Alex loved this curry because I could keep it mild; for John and I, I topped our servings with some Sambal Oelek.
Green Kreoung (Cambodian Curry Paste)
1 stalk of lemongrass, outer leaves peeled, but use more than you would for a Thai curry, a good 10 inches or so (starting at bottom root), chopped
1 oz galangal, peeled and chopped
1 oz wild ginger/rhizome (I have found frozen in the past, but this time I had to order it pickled from Temple Of Thai–just rinse thoroughly before using)
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
4 kaffir lime leaves, sliced
zest of one kaffir lime (sub with 2 extra kaffir lime leaves if necessary)
1 oz turmeric root, peeled and chopped (I actually found fresh at Jungle Jim’s, but you can sub with 1/2 t dried and ground if necessary)
1 T Thai style shrimp paste
Beginning with the most fibrous ingredients (lemongrass, galangal), add the ingredients to your wet dry grinder, pureeing in stages as you add more. When everything is added, you will probably need to add some water to then get it to completely puree into a smooth paste. The paste should smell like its own, complex smell, rather than all of its individual ingredients. Chill until ready to use.
3 T coconut oil
6 T kreoung (see above)
1/2 t curry powder (basic Indian style; I used Penzey’s “sweet”)
2 pork tenderloins, silver skin peeled and cut into bite sized pieces
1/2 med-large onion, thinly sliced
2 sweet bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 19 oz can rich coconut milk (Mae Ploy is a good choice here)
2-3 T palm sugar, to taste
fish sauce to taste (start with 2 T)
1 lb dried rice vermicelli, soaked and cooked according to package directions, and then rinsed to prevent sticking
1/2 head of napa cabbage, shredded
1/2 cup finely chopped peanuts
Heat the coconut oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it has melted and it is hot, add the curry paste with the curry powder. Stir it into the oil and fry the paste until it is fragrant and it starts to separate from the oil. Add a few tablespoons of coconut cream from the top of the can and add the first 2 tablespoons of palm sugar. Fry for a minute or so and then add the pork and sliced onions. Cook the pork in the curry paste until it begins to lose its pink color.
Add the sliced bell pepper, the fish sauce and the rest of the coconut milk. Stir and bring to a simmer (reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer). Cook, covered, for 20 minutes, on a low simmer, and then taste to adjust seasonings (fish sauce and sugar). Dump the cooked rice vermicelli and cabbage into the sauce and toss to combine (you want the cabbage to wilt from the heat). Serve topped with ground peanuts (do not leave them out unless you must–they are crucial to the final flavor).