Cambodian or Khmer cuisine encompasses many cultures reflecting colorful and delectable influences, from China and Laos to the north, Thailand on the west, Vietnam bordering the east, and from French colonialism and Indian culture from the past. Each of these countries has contributed a visible legacy of appealing food traditions.
Stir-fry, steam cookery, and rice noodles came from China. Spices that flavor the multitude of tongue-tingling curries are derived from India, while the French introduced freshly baked baguettes, coffee, beer, and chocolate. Chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, and peanuts are not native to Southeast Asia but journeyed there via the Spanish and Portuguese explorers during the 16th century.
Adding zesty flavors to Khmer cuisine are local aromatic herbs and spices like lemongrass, ginger, mint, and kaffir lime leaves. Seasoning with lots of black pepper, salt, and lime juice is a longstanding tradition that existed before chili peppers arrived and is sometimes preferred over chiles. Exotic flavors and brilliant colors come from cardamom, saffron, tamarind, star anise, and turmeric. Galangal is an important flavoring ingredient often confused with ginger because it is also a rhizome and similar in appearance. Because it may not be available in local markets in the U.S., ginger takes its place in the following recipe.
Definitively sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors blossom in everyday dishes. Some foods are clearly sweet, others taste sour, and sometimes each of the flavors is combined into one delectable dish. Few family recipes are written down; rather, they are a centuries-old oral tradition handed down from mother to daughter. Each family prizes its own unique, and sometimes very secret, blend of seasonings, especially for favored dishes like Amok, an enchanting, thick curry of coconut milk, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and kaffir lime leaves. Highly treasured, Amok is given special status as the national dish of Cambodia.
This vegan version of Amok (traditionally a hallowed fish and coconut milk stew) flaunts the richness of coconut milk while still retaining the characteristic kaffir lime infusion and delicious complexity of typical Southeast Asian flavors. The traditional stew is steamed in banana leaf bowls on top of the stove, but oven baking is the easiest option for us Westerners. Serve Amok with brown rice or quinoa.
- ½ pound extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 tbsp low-salt soy sauce or tamari
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice
- 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and angle-sliced
- 6 shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thickly sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 8 fresh kaffir lime leaves, thinly slivered with scissors (If dried, leave whole.)
- 2 tbsp red miso
- 1 tbsp plus 2 teaspoons vegan sugar
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 Thai chiles or ¼-½ teaspoon cayenne
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 3 tbsp tapioca flour
- One 14-ounce can coconut cream
- 12 ounces low-sodium vegetable broth
- In a large deep skillet, combine the tofu, soy sauce, and lemon juice. Using a wooden spoon, cook and stir over high heat for about 2 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated. Continue cooking for another minute or two until the tofu is golden brown. Put the tofu into a 2-quart casserole dish.
- Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and bell pepper to the dish and toss well to distribute the ingredients evenly. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- In a medium bowl, combine the garlic, kaffir lime leaves, miso, sugar, lime juice, salt, chilies, and turmeric. Add the tapioca flour and 1/2 cup of the coconut cream. Use a whisk to incorporate the miso and thoroughly combine the ingredients. Add the remaining coconut cream and vegetable broth and mix well.
- Pour the coconut cream mixture into the casserole and cover with aluminum foil. Put the casserole on a baking sheet and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the potatoes and carrots are fork tender.