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Cooking Ingredients for Authentic Southeast Asian Cuisine Recipes: Use Cambodian Spices Roots and Herbs for Health

Updated on February 17, 2014

One of the first things that you will notice about Cambodian food is how aesthetically pleasing it is! Many of these great traditional dishes are very colorful!

Cambodian recipes are usually not written down, but rather passed from generation to generation by showing children how to prepare these dishes in their own kitchens. It is a great cultural significance and bonding ritual within many Asian communities. Traditionally, cooking is done outdoors but as Southeast Asia is modernizing, many houses have replaced the hut-like dwellings and major cities like Phnom Penh are thriving with markets, tourist attractions and restaurants.

This article attempts to dispel the secrets of these centuries-old dishes! We will begin by exploring the Basic Ingredients that are found in Cambodian Food, as well as the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. You will find at least one of these ingredients in nearly every dish!

Basic Ingredients Found In Cambodian and Southeast Asian Food

Characteristics and Uses
Also Known As...
Alternative/Similar Ingredients
Asian Shallots
Small, round and pinkish in color. Sweet oniony flavor, wit a hint of garlic.
Banana Flowers
Un-opened male flowers from the banana plant. A purple-redish color, with a yellow skirt. The heart of the flower is used in salads, and can be canned or dried for longer life. The outer petals must be removed to reveal a white and creamy heart. They are very sticky!
Cabbage Leaves
Banana Leaves
Used as a wrap while steaming and grilling. Similar to the Greek method of using Grape leaves.Adds sweet flavor and maintains moisture while cooking. To soften the leaves to be rolled, soak in warm water for 5-10 minutes.
Holy Basil
Several feet in hight and has a unique smell. Sweet like Italian Basil with a hint of geranium. Often added at the end of cooking in stir-fry dishes.
merap prey (Cambodia), kaprow (Thai)
Thai Basil
A dark green leaf that is similar in smell to Italian basil. Often used in salads and soups to add flavor. Also added to the end of cooking or it will loose it's flavor.
chie nieng vong (Cambodian), hung que (Vietnamese), horapa (Thai)
Fresh Coriander Leaves (Cilantro)
Bitter Khmer Leaves
A bitter leaf, often blanched before using to reduce bitterness.
Sdao (Cambodian)
Sorrel Leaves, Fresh Spinach
Chili Peppers
Variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Fresh Green and Red Asian Finger-Length Chilies
Moderately hot.
Tiny Red, Green, or Orange Bird's-Eye Chilies
Very Hot!
chili padi (Cambodian)
Dried Chili Peppers
Mild and Finger-length. Seeds have to be removed and salted. They must soak before grinding/crushing them. Has an indefinate shelf life.
mate phlao krim (Cambodian)
Coriander Leaves
Roots and stems are used in cooking. Used sparingly as they have a very strong flavor!
Cilantro (Western Countries), Chines Parsley (Asia General)
Regular Parsley with Fresh Basil Leaves added
Daikon Radish
A large, white-fleshed and crisp radish. Has a sweet, clean flavore and is used in Japanese and Korean cousine as well. Can be eaten raw or cooked. Peel skin before using, or scrub really well.
Dried Cambodian Fish
Cured in salt and sugar, then dried. Delicate flavor and must be lightly fried before using.
trey niet
Salt Cod, Any Fresh Cooked Fish
Slender and Purple-skinned (15-20 cm/6-8 in long) Mild flavor and does not require salt.
Fish Paste
One of the most common ingredients in Khmer cooking. Fish are preserved in salt until they break down into a paste. Very "Fishy" smell to most westerners
prahok (Cambodia), nam prik pha (Thai), and padek, or belachan {uses shrimp instead} (Laotian)
Fish Sauce
Thin, salty sauce from the leftover juices of Fish Paste. Very strong "Fishy" smell. Very common (like soy sauce) in most supermarkets.
teuk trey (Cambodia), nuoc mam (Vietnam), and nam pla (Thai)
Galangal (Thai Ginger in English)
Cream-colored, white root used to flavor Curry Pastes and Soups. Must be sliced very fine as it is very fibrous.
rumdeng (Cambodia)
Green (Unripened) Mangoes
Used in salads or as a treat with light salt and chili pepper sprinkles. These fruits can also be used to tenderize meat!
Green Peppercorns
Easily perishiable so usually packed in Brine or water, or can be frozen. A soft, unripe berry and not very pungent like ripe black and white peppercorns.
Milky, white-fleshed root. Often used in salads, or as a treat with sugar/salt/chili pepper spices. Also used to make stock or soups.
pek koa (Cambodia), and bengkuang in most of Southeast Asia
Mild Apple Varieties such as "Golden Delicious"
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Glossy, dark green leaves used similar to Bay Leaves in Western cooking. Can be added to curries, salads, and stir-fries. Adds a wonderful fragrance and color to dishes if used as a garnish. Can be fresh, frozen, or dried.
kroy saoch
Looks like a bunch of yellow-brown fingers as it is a rhizome. Fragrance similar to Lavender. Used in Curry Pastes and in the Classic Khmer dish "Amok"
kchiey (Cambodia), In Western culture, known as "Lesser Ginger", or "Chinese Keys".
A fibrous stalk with a white bulb base. The inside tender white stalk is often chpped or sliced and used in Curry Pastes, Marinades and Soups. The leaves can be used to make lemon flavored tea.
slok krey
Oyster Mushrooms
White or grey fan-shaped mushrooms that grow in clusters.
Sometimes referred to as "Abalone" mushrooms
Palm Sugar
Has a rich caramel flavor and more complex than sugar cane. Made from the sap of the Sugar Palm Tree (Arenga Pinnata). Sap is reduced to a syrup and then dehydrated.
skoa tnaot (Cambodia)
Dark Brown Maple Sugar (half of what the recipe calls for), or Maple Syrup (double the amount)
A cytrus fruit similar to Grape-fruit. Greenish-yellow skin with pink flesh. Sweeter, toucher, thicker and drier than the grapefruit, pomelos are often used in salads or eaten alone.
Pork Belly
Fresh cut of meat from the pig's underside. This is the same cut used to make American Bacon.
Rice Flour
Made from ground grains of long grain rice and is used to make dough or batter for deserts.
Rice Paddy Herb
Pungent aroma. Used in soups, particularly "Sour Soup"-a Cambodian favorite.
mo am (Cambodia), rau om (Vietnam)
Sawtooth Herb
Has long leaves and is similar to coriander, but stronger. Fresh leaves are added to soups after cooking as a garnish, and can also be added to salads.
Also as "Mexican Coriander", chi ana (Cambodia), ngo gai (Vietnam)
Fresh Coriander Leaves
Star Anise
A dried spice thatlokks like a brown star with eight points. Each point holds a shiny seed responsible for the very specific aroma. Used in soups and when making Khmer Curry
pka tian (Cambodia)
The pod is light brown and can grow up to 8 in/20 cm. There is a sour pulp and hard seeds. Often eaten unripe (green) with salt and chilies. The seeds can be grounded and used in sauces.
ampeul (Cambodia)
A rhizome that looks like Ginger Root but is more orange and smaller. Used in Curries and Stews. The juice will stain clothing!
romiet (Cambodia)
Dried Turmeric (usually a grounded powder)
Vietnamese Mint
Not actually part of te mint family, this herb is green and has a very distinct aroma; acid and peppery. Used in Soups and Salads
Laksa Leaves, Vietnamese Coriander, Hot Mint, or Cambodian Mint, chi pong chia kon (Cambodia, rou ram (Vietnam)
Equal parts Fresh Mint and Coriander (Cilantro)
Water Lily Stems
White stems with a pinkish hue, used mostly in Soups. Remove thin film on outside of stem.
Water Spinach
One of the most basic ingredients in Khmer cuisine. A water plant with hollow stems and arrow-like leaves. Leaves are often eaten raw in salad, while the stems can be added to stir-fries and soups.
trokun (Cambodia), rau muong (Vietnam)
Watercress, Bok Choy
Winter Mellon
A member of the Squash family, is mild flavored, and used in soups and stir-fries
Ash Gourd, Ash Pumpkin, Winter Gourd

*Photos used with permission

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Let's Make A Delicious, Quick and Easy Lime Chili Dip!

Now that we are familiar with the basic ingredients in Cambodian cooking, why don't we start off with a very simple recipe for Lime Chili Dip! This dip can be used for dunking just about anything including bread, vegetables, crackers, or even fruit! Apples are my favorite to dip!

Here's what we will need:

  • 1 small carrot, peeled and grated
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped fine
  • 2 bird's-eye chili peppers, chopped fine
  • 3 tablespoons of coarsely chopped roasted peanuts
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) lime juice
  • 1/2 cup (250 ml) fish sauce (*optional)
  • 4 tablespoons of palm or dark brown sugar (*see chart above for replacing palm with brown sugar)
  • 1 cup (250 ml) warm water

Mix all the ingredients into a small bowl for easy dipping. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved and allow to sit for 30 minutes.

That's it!

Start dipping!

Have You Ever Tried Authentic Cambodian or Southeast Asian Food?

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© 2011 JS Matthew


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