Cambodian cuisine with Luu Meng
and his recipe for samlor korko

Floating market in Cambodia

Cambodia

Cambodian people rely on a diet of fish from the Mekong river, the vast Tonlé Sap freshwater lake and over 400 kilometres of coastline to form the backbone of their cuisine. Fish is fermented into a pungent seasoning paste known as prahok; steamed inside banana leaves to make the famous dish amok; or combined with kroeung to make what many believe is Cambodia’s national dish: samlor korko. Master chef Luu Meng specialises in the cuisine of his homeland and is keen to preserve traditional recipes, some of which may already be lost as a result of the country’s turbulent history.

What was the food that you grew up eating?
"My grandparents are Chinese, which made me grow up with noodle soup in different forms. My favourite one was pork noodle soup with different vegetables. Food has always played an important role in our family; my grandmother was a commis in the royal palace and my mother had a restaurant before she married, and continued to sell soup in front of our house when we were little.

"My brothers and I were always helping out in the kitchen, especially in the mornings when we would eat noodles together. This, together with my grandmother who always told us how important the chef is in the kitchen, made me want to become a chef as well. When I got a job in a restaurant, I had to choose between the service and the kitchen. That was an easy choice: it became the kitchen."

That has worked out well! What do you love about cooking?
"When you cook a good recipe and you get great feedback from the guests who taste your food – that is what encourages me to continue what I do. Food is always on my mind. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night having dreamt about a new recipe."

Do you have an example?
"I spent an afternoon on a farm on an island a couple of weeks ago. I saw all these amazing melons: young watermelons and old winter melons. The thoughts of these melons don’t just stop after dinner, or even after going to bed. I woke up and wanted to go down to the kitchen to start cutting up one of these winter melons. I wisely waited until the next day, and made it into sort of a stew or soup, by cooking it for four hours together with lemongrass, herbs and seafood. It’s a dish that I shared with one of my Chinese chefs, and has been on the menu since."

It sounds delicious. Speaking of lemongrass – that’s an aromatic that’s widely used in Cambodian cuisine, right?
"Yes. It has so much character and is truly unique in flavour. It’s my favourite ingredient to work with because it’s so versatile. We use it in sauces or vinaigrettes, in salads and curries. Even the green, leafy part of the lemongrass doesn’t go to waste. We use it in kroeung."

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Kroeung?
"That’s one of the absolutely essential ingredients in Cambodian cuisine. It just means ‘spices’, but it’s actually a paste that comes in many different variations. The main ones are separated by colour: white, yellow, red and green. The lemongrass leaves make the green one green. The yellow one gets its colour from fresh turmeric, while the white and red ones get it from young and red chillis respectively. 

"Other ingredients include shallots, makrut lime, garlic and galangal [a fragrant root related to ginger]. What kroeung is to us is what tomato sauce might be to an Italian chef. Ask ten Italian chefs the recipe for their tomato sauce and you will probably get ten different versions; this will also depend on the region of Italy they are from. The same applies to our kroeung.

"Another very important ingredient is prahok. It’s a salted, fermented fish paste that’s used in many other condiments and dishes (including in some varieties of kroeung)."

Cambodian cuisine is heavy on fish, isn’t it?
"I would say that 40 to 50% of all dishes are made with fish. The most famous one is amok trey where trey means ‘fish’ and amok is the process of cooking in banana leaves. Another great example is a caramel fish stew, where the fish is actually coated in a layer of caramel."

Fisherman on Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Mangkorn Danggura / Shutterstock.com

"I would say that 40 to 50% of all Cambodian dishes are made with fish. The most famous one is 'amok trey'; fish cooked in banana leaves."

Luu Meng

Cambodian people lived through horrific times in recent history with the Khmer Rouge regime. How did this affect Cambodian cuisine?
"What I always share with chefs from all over the world: most of you are so lucky to have so much documentation about your culture and cuisine. Cambodian chefs like me hardly have any books. We’re slowly getting back all the recipes, but it takes time.

"If you lose the skilled people, but still have the documentation – you have something. If you lose the documentation, but still have the skilled people – you still have something. We had neither. When Cambodia finally found some peace in 1991, it took years until we really started to work on our culinary heritage. It just didn’t have any priority before then."

The Khmer Rouge had a devastating impact on many aspects of society. With the country in calmer waters, Luu Meng is trying to re-establish as much as possible of what got lost.
"I travel all around the country to collect recipes from as many grandmothers as I can find. For some dishes, I have 10 or 20 different recipes. People often misunderstand Cambodian food and confuse it with Thai or Vietnamese. Thai food is usually cooked fast and tends to be spicier and sweeter (to balance out the spiciness) than Cambodian food. Vietnamese food, however, uses more herbs, lemon, garlic and fish sauce. It’s very different. Cambodian food is more slow-cooked and uses milder spices.

"It’s fascinating to see how many influences Cambodian cuisine has. Our relations with India date back to ancient times and brought us curries. We enjoy beautiful, light, seafood and vegetable soup because of the Chinese, and the gourmet aspect came thanks to the French. Another curious influence from France is frogs. They’ve been on the menu in France for centuries, and we have a local variety: frog stuffed with kroeung."

Samlor korko

The Dish

What is samlor korko influenced by?
“It’s the Cambodian version of ratatouille [a vegetable stew from the Provence]! Our version is slow-cooked just like the French one, but of course, has many Cambodian flavours. We use the fermented fish paste (prahok), the curry paste (kroeung) and local vegetables. The traditional version is with fish, but you can easily leave it out and add another vegetable or two.”

Is it popular throughout the country?
“It is, and it’s a dish for everyone. It’s everyday food that people can have, even on the most basic of incomes. No matter how poor or rich, it’s a dish you always come back to.”

The Ingredients

Kroeung
6
lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced
16
makrut lime leaves
60 g
fresh turmeric, thinly sliced (or 2 tsp ground turmeric)
10
cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
60 g
galangal, thinly sliced
3
shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp
salt
Samlor korko
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
1 tbsp
prahok
100 g
kroeung
2 tsp
palm sugar or brown sugar
500 g
meaty, white fish in large chunks
4 tbsp
roasted rice (optional)
800 g
seasonal vegetables, in bite-size pieces (traditional vegetables include pumpkin, green papaya, eggplant, green beans, winter melon)
100 g
leafy vegetables
Kroeung
6
lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced
16
makrut lime leaves
4 tbsp
fresh turmeric, thinly sliced (or 2 tsp ground turmeric)
10
cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 tbsp
galangal, thinly sliced
3
shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp
salt
Samlor korko
2 tbsp
vegetable oil
1 tbsp
prahok
100 g
kroeung
2 tsp
palm sugar or brown sugar
2 lbs
meaty, white fish in large chunks
4 tbsp
roasted rice (optional)
1.7 lbs
seasonal vegetables, in bite-size pieces (traditional vegetables include pumpkin, green papaya, eggplant, green beans, winter melon)
3.5 oz
leafy vegetables

The Recipe

Total preparation time: unknown | Yield: unknown | Category: unknown

Kroeung

  1. Pound all ingredients together in a large mortar and pestle until it forms a thick, smooth paste. You can use a blender or food processor, but the texture the mortar and pestle yields is hard to replicate using a machine.

Samlor korko

  1. Cook the prahok in the oil for about 10 minutes over medium heat, until it has coloured slightly. Add the kroeung and sugar and cook for a minute or so, until fragrant.
  2. Add the vegetables and stir until well coated with the kroeung and prahok. Add the fish and roasted rice (if using), and gently stir until well combined.
  3. Add stock or water to cover and boil until the vegetables and fish are almost cooked through, about 5-10 minutes.  
  4. Add the leafy vegetables, stir and season to taste.
  5. Serve with white rice or as is.
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