World Spices Cooking Class 1: a Cambodian Appetizer

My first ‘World Spices’ cooking class started with ‘Tofu in Curried Coconut Milk’ from Cambodia. I was in Cambodia for a couple of weeks in 2007, but looking through my journal I see that I often mentioned the people I ate with, but only occasionally noted what I ate.

It appears that the food we indulged in was mostly French (Cambodia once being part of French Indochina) or Indian, as in “icy mugs, icy cloths, cold beers and samosas, what a delight!

Regarding a Cambodian meal I have written, “amok and Margaritas(!) for dinner, the amok served in a coconut shell…” or “omelette and noodles for lunch“. There aren’t even any photos of meals. I have added the few food photos I took at the bottom of this post; you’ll know why they are at the bottom when you see them!

Cambodia: Tofu in Curried Coconut Milk (Chu Chee Tofu)

Cambodia coconut curry with tofu

Cambodia coconut curry with tofu

to make it Cambodian: coconut milk plus a unique Cambodian curry paste

ingredients for the curry paste:
  • lemongrass (grate the white bulb ‘end’ and chop the rest);
  • small hot red chiles (soak in warm water for five to 10 minutes, slice in half and discard the seeds);
  • shallots;
  • cilantro (Asian cilantro looks very different from the western parsley-like stuff. It is called various things in the plant store; the other day I saw it called ‘Vietnamese coriander’. It smells and tastes almost the same though, so if you can’t find it, then cilantro makes a good substitute – this is what we used in our class);
  • galangal (a rhizome that looks very much like ginger; prepare like ginger, peeling off the rough exterior skin, then grating);
  • garlic;
  • shrimp paste (fermented, almost ‘rotten’, this adds a distinctive flavour);
  • ground cumin;
  • ground coriander seeds;
  • ground tumeric;
  • crushed black peppercorns;
  • lime juice.

1. Mash everything with a morter and pestle, then fry in a small frypan to bring out the essential oils and flavours. NOTE: there was something volatile in this curry paste that had me coughing my lungs out, and I wasn’t the only one in the class with this problem. Even the left-overs heated in the microwave set me coughing again.

using a mortar and pestle to grind the spices

using a mortar and pestle to grind the spices

2. In a larger saucepan fry chopped shallots until soft.  NOTE: in Cambodia they would typically use peanut oil to fry their ingredients, but if you’re allergic, then grape seed oil is a good substitute.

3. Add coconut milk and the fried curry paste.

4. Fry until fragrant.

5. Time for a taste test; if not salty enough add more shrimp paste.

6. Add cubes of tofu.

slicing the tofu for our Cambodian coconut curry

slicing the tofu for our Cambodian coconut curry

7. Serve over jasmine rice (started 15 minutes earlier, follow instructions on rice package).

8. Garnish with cilantro sprigs.

Cambodia coconut curry with tofu

Cambodia coconut curry with tofu

Notes: The sauce was wonderful but I’m not that fond of tofu. I think this sauce would be fabulous with shrimp.

We were in Laos just before Cambodia, and while I have tons of raves and photos of Laos food (see my Laos Cooking Class in Luang Prabang), this is all I have for Cambodia:

gruesome snacks (Cambodia)At our food stop, enroute from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh: some gruesome snacks of cockroaches with your choice of a pomelo or banana  for dessert
Snails with Lemongrass and Chiles
Snails with lemongrass and chiles on the streets of Phnom Penh
pretty colored jelly dessert
Pretty colored jelly dessert in the market in Sihanoukville

gruesome spider snacks (Cambodia)
Gruesome spider snacks, one of the tourists bought one but I didn’t– they were expensive!


Chef Eric posts many of his recipes on his website:

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