Chef Nak’s Essential Cambodian Ingredients
Rotanak Ros, better known as Chef Nak, shares nine foundational ingredients of Cambodian cuisine. Together, these ingredients—along with many, many more spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, and pantry products—create the cuisine’s rich and complex flavors.
The quartz-rich foothills of the Elephant Mountains provide the unique conditions to create Kampot pepper’s world-famous flavor. The organically-grown plant can produce green, black, white, and red pepper, depending on when it is harvested.
Cultivation practices have been passed down through the generations in Kampot Province for hundreds of years. In order to be authorized to use the Protected Geographical Indication, “Kampot Pepper,” accredited plantations are inspected by the Kampot Pepper Producers Association, as well as Eco-Cert, an independent certification body.
Pepper contains minerals such as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium, as well as vitamins B6, K, and E, niacin, riboflavin, folate, and thiamin. It also contains a small amount of carbohydrate and protein, and is rich in dietary fiber.
Kampot Province is also famous for its salt. To produce the salt, seawater is allowed to flow into a series of fields, where it evaporates in stages, leaving behind only the salt crystals. This raw salt is collected and stored in large warehouses before being cleaned, infused with iodine, and delivered across Cambodia.
As well as being a crucial ingredient in cooking, salt also is an essential part of human health. We get most of the sodium and chloride we need directly from salt, which helps nerve and muscle function, and the regulation of bodily fluids, blood pH, and blood pressure.
Palm sugar is available in markets throughout Cambodia in small, round, brown tablets. These tablets are produced by boiling and condensing palm juice collected from palm tree flowers. Palm sugar is added to many dishes to give them a sweet, earthy taste, and is a healthier substitute to refined sugar.
With its intense smell, prahok is often known as Cambodia’s blue cheese. For me, it is more like the Cambodian anchovy, adding a salty and fishy flavor to the core of each recipe. It is so popular and widely used that the Cambodian phrase, “No prahok, no salt” essentially means that a dish is bland without it.
Prahok originated as a way to preserve fish during the months when fresh fish were in short supply. To make it, fish is crushed, salted, and fermented, resulting in a paste that can be added like a condiment, or enjoyed with fresh vegetables and rice.
Fish sauce is produced by coating fish or krill in salt and fermenting them for up to two years. The seasoning is a staple throughout Southeast and East Asia. In Cambodia, we use fish sauce in many ways. One of the main ways is as a replacement to prahok, especially in soups, as it offers a milder flavor.
When they are in season, we use young tamarinds to make dipping sauces that match perfectly with grilled fish and meat. Young tamarinds and tamarind leaves are also used to give a sour flavor to some Cambodian soups. When they become ripe, we peel them and take out their seeds so that they will keep for a long time. With its many nutrients and antioxidants, tamarind is known to contribute to good heart health, improved digestion, and weight loss.
Galangal is part of the ginger family and is often used in Cambodian cooking, especially in lemongrass paste. Compared to ginger, it has a sharper flavor with hints of citrus and pine. Galangal has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, and helps ease stomach pain and digestion.
Even though garlic is in the same family as onion, shallots, leek, and Chinese chive flowers, it does not turn sweet when cooked. It retains its strong flavor and is an important part of many recipes in Cambodia and around the world. Garlic is very low in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It is known to help with heart health and blood pressure, and possibly preventing cancer.
Everybody knows chilies, but not everybody loves chilies. When I grew up, chilies were always a part of our diet, but not as an ingredient in a dish. Rather, they were always served on the side with fish sauce or soy sauce, as a supplement to a meal. These days, chilies have appeared more and more within Cambodian recipes. I guess globalization has also affected our palate!
Opinions about the health benefits of eating chilies are mixed. Generally speaking, they may be good for some people but are best avoided if they cause any digestive distress.