P and I honeymooned in Thailand and Cambodia last July. We ate amazing food the whole trip- alien-like rambutans, steaming bowls of noodles, and perhaps most bafflingly, a banana wrapped in a waffle on a stick. We expected good food in Thailand, but were blown away by what we ate in Cambodia. The word Khmer refers to the culture and the language, while Cambodia refers to geo-political boundaries. If you haven't tried Khmer food (we hadn't) the best way I can describe it is less sweet then Thai food, but with similar flavor profiles and very little chili. Staple ingredients include freshwater fish in every form, (including fish sauce and fish paste) fresh fruit and vegetables, coconut, cane and palm sugar, lemongrass and kaffir lime.
rambutans in a thai market
When I travel, I love to bring home a cookbook of the local cuisine to remind me of what I've enjoyed and so I can recreate it at home. I scoured the bookstore in the Siem Riep airport for a one, but had no luck. When I came home, I googled and found that there is only ONE KHMER COOKBOOK in circulation in America (at least only one that is soley dedicated to Cambodian cooking). Moreover, it was OUT OF PRINT. A copy could be had, but for exorbitant prices. I resigned myself to never having my very own book of Khmer cookery.
our Khmer "snack cake"- rice and coconut stuffed in bamboo and grilled.
Enter, P, husband extraordinare, who contacted the Elephant Walk, the Boston restaurant who published the cookbook. He speedily secured me one of the first copies, which I now have in my hot little hands. Tonight for dinner, we return to Cambodia by feasting on Royal Catfish Enrobed with Coconut Milk and Lemongrass.
This dish is full of fragrant aromatics: lemongrass, shallots, galangal (I used ginger). The coconut milk makes the sauce silky and luxurious. It was simple to make the paste in the food processor and the rest of the dish came together in a snap- I think the rice took the longest. This dish is my submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Manias: Food Matters. I've included substitutions for some of the harder to find ingredients.
Royal Catfish Enrobed with Coconut Milk and Lemongrass
from The Elephant Walk Cookbook
6 tbs vegetable oil
4 catfish fillets (about 2 lbs)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
1 tbs fish sauce
3 tsp sugar
4 kaffir lime leaves, de-veined and julienned
for the paste:
3 dried New Mexico chilies, soaked, seeded and deveined (or 3 tbs paprika)
1 tbs sliced lemongrass
3 garlic cloves
2 medium shallots
5 kaffir lime leave, deviened (can use lime zest)
2 tsp peeled galangal (can use ginger and a bit of lemon juice
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp shrimp paste
1/2 cup water
Put all the paste ingredients in a blender or food processor, combine till smooth, apx 2-3 minutes. set aside.
Heat 1/4 c oil in a large skillet over med-high heat. Fry the fish until golden brown, turning once,about 6 minutes per side. Set aside, covered, to keep warm.
In a second large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tbs oil with 1/2 c. coconut milk and cook over med-high heat until the oil separates from the coconut milk. Add the paste and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until aroma is released. Add the remaining 1 c. coconut milk, fish sauce and sugar. Cook 5 minutes more, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and add fish, spooning the sauce over the fillets to cover fully. Let sit for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer fish and sauce to a platter, garnish with julienned lime leaves. Serve with rice.