Monday, November 24, 2008

Khmer Recipes: Cambodian Ceviche Salad

Ever since people found out that I am heading back, my amazing coworkers have been inviting me to join them for special foods and festivities. So far, I've made fish amok, eaten grilled eel, had delicious grilled beef skewers with papaya salad, and on Saturday morning, Rith invited me to her house to learn two new traditional Cambodian dishes.

Rith's husband is a police officer and she lives in a house behind the police station, basically in the field better known as the "old prison" just behind my house.I went over around 9am to find Rith and one of her housemates already busy washing veggies and roasting peanuts. As the morning wound on, 5 of Rith's neighbors and their children came over to help chop, pound, slice, fry, marinate, and otherwise contribute to our delicious lunch.

Fresh-roasted peanuts for the ceviche

Cambodian Ceviche Salad (Plear Threi)

For Cevice and Sauce
1 kilo firm white fish*
1/2 cup prahok (fermented fish paste)
1.5 cup lime juice
3 stalks lemongrass
4'' galangal root
1 kaffir lime
3 kaffir lime leaves
2 bulbs garlic
2 cups peanuts, crushed small
bird chilis
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
3 tbsp sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp cooking oil
fish sauce to taste
1/2 cup water

Assortment of vegetables:
Cabbage and/or Lettuce
Thai parsley
Holy basil
Banana flower
Banana trunk
Bean sprouts

1) Wash and chop your vegetables. Cabbages or iceberg lettuce can be quartered. Other lettuce should be washed and the leaves separated. For the banana flower, use only the tender top half, not the stem. Cut the top half of the bud in half again, lengthwise, then slice thinly down the moon shape. Keep in a small bowl with lime juice and water to prevent browning. Cut the disk of the banana trunk in half across the diameter and slice similarly. Julienne the cucumber. Blanche bean sprouts to reduce the likelihood of disease. Put everything in the fridge or on ice to chill.

2) Process your raw ingredients: Remove the green leaves at the top of the 3 lemongrass stalks and chop the firm white bottom part. Process in a mortar and pestle or food processor until a uniform fluffy paste and set aside -- you should have about 1.5 cups. Chop the galangal root, process as the lemongrass and set aside -- about 1/2 cup, loosely packed. Remove the skin of the kaffir lime (some white rind is okay -- it will not be bitter) and do the same as with the galangal and lemongrass. Repeat the process with the lime leaves and 2 bulbs of garlic. Chop your prahok until a wet, gray paste. Keep each ingredient separate for now.

3) To make the sauce base, or "krooung"** add 2 tbsp of your reserved galangal, all the lime leaves and lime skin, half your garlic, and 1/4 cup of the lemongrass into your mortar and pestle. Mash together into a paste and set aside.

4) Slice fish thinly (about 2 mm thick). Chop slices into small pieces, no bigger than 2cm x 1cm. It may be easier if your fish is frozen first.

5) To the fish, add salt, sugar, and lime juice and stir well. Add the remaining galangal, lemongrass, garlic and stir. Add 1 cup peanuts and mix it up with your hands. Continue for about 5 minutes, until the fish looks completely opaque (cooked). Squeeze the fish out with your hands, and place in another bowl in the fridge. Reserve the juice.

6) Heat 2 tbsp oil in a medium pot over a high flame. When hot, add prahok and stir well. Fry for 3-4 minutes. The prahok will be very fragrant and should start to froth and bubble in the pot.

7) Turn the heat down to medium, add your "krooung" and stir. Fry for 5-7 minutes. The texture should be somewhat dry, so be careful of burning. Sprinkle in some fish sauce to taste (1-2 tsp should do).

8) Continue stirring and add in the reserved juice from the fish, reducing the heat to low. Add 1/2 cup water and 2 tbsp sugar. Mix until dissolved and then remove from the heat.

Serve sauce in individual small bowls. Individuals can add peanuts and chopped chilis to the sauce, as desired. Put fish and vegetables in the middle. Each person will take a lettuce or cabbage leaf, add veggies and some fish and dip in the sauce. The mixture can also be eaten over white rice.

The fish, all cooked in lime

* Cambodians use a small, whole fish called Threi Riel (money fish). They defin, descale, and degut the fish, smash it flat and then cut it in half with a cleaver. The fish was delicious, but I found the small bones poked at my gums.
** MSG is used liberally in Cambodian cooking, but I tend to leave it out in my recipes.
*** "Krooung" means "ingredients" and is used to describe any number of pastes used for bases in soups, curries, and for marinating meat. Krooung can be as simple as salt, sugar, garlic and MSG, but your typical ones include a combination of galangal, ginger, lemongrass, shallots, turmeric, garlic, and kaffir lime skin.

The tiny guys they used -- I might try a boneless fish, sliced thinly

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