How do I begin to speak about an ingredient or the ingredients that comprises this paste when it’s so indicative of my culture? That’s a big task! “Kroeung” directly translate to “ingredients”, but we use it as the generic term to describe an aromatic paste used to flavor soups (somlaw), stir fries (cha), curries (kari) and so many other applications. To me “Kroeung” describes a yellow paste made of lemongrass, shallots, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric. Although there are Red Kroeung (with red chilies) and Green Kroeung (with cilantro and other green herbs), yellow has always been my favorite. Much like New Orleans’ holy trinity of onions, bell peppers and celery, or the Chinese with garlic, ginger and scallions, the Cambodian holy trinity is well represented in all Kroeung pastes. Lemongrass, galangal and/or kaffir limes are present in almost every Cambodian dish I know.
Every family has their own recipe passed down through the generations. My family is no different, I learned my Kroeung recipe from my mom but I tend to add more turmeric than she does. Traditionally Kroeung involves the chopping of all the ingredients then pounding into a paste with a mortar and pestle, in today’s modern kitchen you can use a food processor or a blender. I tend to favor the mortar and pestle method followed closely by a food processor on my lazy days. I don’t like to use a blender because you’d need to add lots of water to blend everything correctly.
Which brings us to texture! I prefer a dry Kroeung, which you can achieve with the first 2 methods, a blender makes a very watery Kroeung paste which you can drain the water from, but I feel the taste and texture isn’t the same. Kroeung is such a personal thing, you add the ingredients in quantities to suit your tastes. Pound it as little or as much as you like to achieve your ideal consistency and make it as dry or wet as you’d like. Does it seem confusing? It really isn’t! It’s one of the simplest things to make but the flavor it gives food is so amazing! I can not nor will I ever want to imagine Cambodian foods without the added touch of Kroeung, it’s just impossible to me.
I’m so in love with my mortar and pestle, my mother bought it in 1981 when she first arrived in America, it’s nearly as old as I am! It’s small but so heavy, it barely holds one cup of ingredients and I adore it. Using it makes me feel more connected to the old ways of doing things. I pull my hair back into a loose bun, I wear a light tank top with a sarong secured tightly around my waist, my feet are bare as I stand there, pounding and grinding ingredients 1 cup at a time to the perfect consistency. So much like my mother, remembering my younger days when I would sit on the kitchen floor watching her prepare daily meals.
My father is a rock star, he planted Lemongrass sometime last year in our back yard, now they’ve grown into a lovely bush and even better, I now have organic lemongrass to use in my cooking when I wish. The intoxicating citrus tangy smell of fresh-cut lemongrass is something everyone should experience at least once. It’s so fragrant and because it’s freshly cut moments before I bring it into my kitchen, I am able to use most of the stalk. Store bought lemongrass has a tendency to be dry so you want to use only the most tender parts towards the roots, usually about 2-3 inches. If you can’t find fresh lemongrass, I suppose you can use frozen, but the aroma and taste will be weaker.
Galangal root is a cousin to ginger, but if you can’t find galangal for any reason, please do not substitute with ginger! They are related but the taste isn’t the same! Galangal’s skin is thin like a ginger but much harder to peel, it’s less fibrous than ginger but has a harder bright white flesh. It’s a bit hard to cut, but if you cut thin slices versus chunks, it’s much easier, a sharp knife is a must!
Kaffir Lime Leaves, like lemongrass, it has a deep citrus smell. It’s use as an aromatic (like bay leaves) in many Khmer dishes. In Cambodia, Kroeung is often made with the rinds of kaffir limes, but they’re hard to come by outside of Southeast Asia. My mom would buy these leaves in bulk and freeze them for later usage. They freeze beautifully, to prepare them for Kroeung, you have to trim off the stem and julienne the leaves
Turmeric is a ROCK STAR if you’ve never used turmeric you should! I has a very distinct taste, it’s a bit hard to describe, it’s earthy with a slight bitter taste. It’s used mainly as a natural coloring agent and for fragrance more than taste. I’ve used the real turmeric root (a long skinny yellow flesh root) in my kroeung before, but I only had the powder on hand today. Turmeric has so many healing properties, some I’m aware of and some I never knew before doing my research to write this blog. I knew it’s an amazing anti-inflammatory when used in your daily diet, it’s a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent, it’s used to aid digestion but I did not know (until today) that it can help reduce insulin resistance and is a liver detoxifier! I’m seriously amazed by this little root and all it’s big power!
Makes a little over 1 1/2 cup of paste
1 cup Lemongrass, tender parts sliced thinly
1 cup Galangal, sliced
3/4 cup Kaffir Lime Leaves, devein and julienned
1/2 cup Shallots, whole
1/4 cup Garlic, whole
1 1/2 tbsp Turmeric Powder
Splash of Water
Mortal & Pestle –
1. Place a few tablespoons of each ingredient and pound away until it all becomes a paste. Depending on size of mortal, you’ll have to do this a few times.
Food Processor –
1. Place all ingredients into processor and pulse a few times to break ingredients down. Add a splash of water, 1-2 tbsp and run blade until a paste forms.
How easy was that? The Kroeung is now ready to be used in soups, stir fries, curries and dips! I’ll show you how to use it in one of my favorite dishes, Cha Kroeung Sach Moun or Stir Fry Chicken in Cambodian Aromatic Paste in my next blog post. Kroeung also freezes beautifully, just wrap it tightly to prevent freezer burn.
Continuing my Khmer video posts and excited to party next weekend!
Preap Sovath – Pka Kropom