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Five main Cambodian ingredients

Prahok
A gray, pasty preserved fish, is probably the most distinctive flavor in all Cambodian cooking and certainly the most unusual for Westerners. Its smell has earned it the nickname "Cambodian cheese" in The Elephant Walk kitchen, and its odor is reminiscent of ripe Camembert. You may ask why anyone would want to eat it ( and a lot of Westerners have asked ); the answer lies in something beyond flavor, which can be described as a kind of volume and body that a dish takes on as a result of the prahok. A very small amount goes a long way, and there is really no substitute for prahok, although some people suggest using shrimp paste or anchovies in its place.

Lemongrass
One of the signature flavors of Khmer cuisine, this plant provides a distinctively balmy lemon flavor that is reminiscent of its even more aromatic relative, citronella. In Cambodia, where it is used so often and thrives so well you see lemongrass growing in every garden. Lemongrass resembles slightly dry, woody scallions, and like scallions, it is at its best when the tops of the leaves are still green. There is no real substitute for lemongrass, although some people have tried the herb lemon balm and even lemon juice or lemon rind.

Kaffir lime leaves
Kaffir lime leaves are ground into spice pastes, used like bay leaves to flavor a broth or sliced into thin threads as a garnish. Fresh leaves are available and they freeze well, much more preferable to dried kaffir lime leaves where there is a substantial loss of flavor. Before they are blended into pastes, fresh kaffir lime leaves should be deveined. A shortcut is to fold the leaves in half, dark sides together, and pull the vein up and away.

Galangal
Also known as "greater galangal" , this root is cream colored and resembling ginger, it has more delicate, less biting flavor. Galangal, which is found in Asian markets fresh or dried, is commonly used in Cambodian cooking, peeled and pounded into pastes. A single slice of galangal can also be used to give a nice roasted flavor to dish. Some people think ginger is an acceptable substitute, but the flavors are different.

Tamarind
Tamarind paste is the dark pulp from the inside of the flat, beanlike pods that grow on giant tamarind trees. From an Arabic word for "Indian date", tamarind was introduced to the region by Indian traders. Cambodians use tamarind to darken soups and curry sauces and to give them a sour, slightly sweet taste. You can find soft, pliable blocks of tamarind, with or without seeds, in Asian and Indian markets.


The Essence of Cambodian Cuisine

Because of its heritage, Cambodian cuisine is uniquely different from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, to which it has been most often compared. It derives its flavor from spice and aromatic herbs with little use of fat and meats. Fresh vegetables, ripe and unripe fruits and fish are used in abundance . This cuisine is a combination of complex, vibrant flavors, and a very delicate balance between saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness with a keen appreciation for textures.

From India, by way of Java, Cambodians have inherited the art of blending spice paste using cardamom, star anis, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg , ginger and turmeric. To these spices, other indigenous aromatic herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, rhizome and kaffir lime are added to derive a most unique and complex spice blend called "kroeung". This is the foundation of most Cambodian cooking. Chinese techniques such as stir-fry, steaming, and smoking meats have also been adopted as well as the use of soy sauce, salted and fermented soy beans, beansprouts, noodles, and Chinese five spice.

There is an abundance of both fresh and seawater fish in Cambodia which is salted, dried, smoked, and fermented. Like the Vietnamese, fish sauce is served in and with just about everything. But the most unique Cambodian ingredient is prahok. This is fermented fish paste and is used with much greater reserve than fish sauce, so that when it does appear, it signals the food as distinctly Cambodian.

Fresh , crisp vegetables such as banana blossom, long beans, cabbage and cucumber often accompany many dishes for texture, the same way that garnishes of different varieties of mints and basil add another layer of flavor. Cambodians are fond of saltiness and like bitterness in their food. Acidity is used to balance sweetness but is also appreciated on its own in the form of tamarind, unripe fruits, lime juice and pickles. Coconut milk enriches stews, braises and curries. Meat is usually sliced or minced to flavor dishes in small quantity . Rice is a staple and is eaten in generous helpings with the many dishes to accompany and add savoriness.

Cambodian cuisine possesses the brightness of flavor of Vietnamese cuisine, the depth and richness of Indian cuisine and the versatility of Chinese cuisine. However, it stands on its own in uniqueness and complexity. While it is bursting with flavor, this cuisine offers a diet with very little fat using generous amounts of fresh vegetables, fruits and seafood with rice as a staple, making it one of the world's healthiest, most balanced and most interesting cuisines.

 


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