Cambodian breakfast

February 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

New Year, new letter of the alphabet – we’re finally onto the letter C! – new country.

In preparation for our Cambodian breakfast I watched Roland Joffé’s “Killing Fields” on DVD documenting the friendship between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran. The Vietnam war spills over the border into neighbouring Cambodia and the Communist Khmer Rouge take control of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh in 1975. Schanberg gets away unscathed but Pran, as an urban intellectual, is taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge and made to work in harsh labour camps and witnesses Pol Pot’s in the killing fields.

How things have changed in the last 30 odd years. Cambodia is now very much on the modern-day Grand Tour with the holy city of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat a must-see destination. And a tourist website gives the following cursory directions to another top tourist attraction:

“The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are 15 km from Central Phnom Penh. To get there, take Monireth Blvd south-westward out of the city from the Dang Kor Market bus depot.”

So what to eat for our Cambodian breakfast? The opening scenes of “The Killing Fields” feature Schanberg and colleague Al Rockoff (memorably played by John Malkovich) ordering café complet and aspirin at Phnom Penh’s Café Central but I was after something altogether more authentic. Fortunately, travel blogs are almost unanimous in identifying Nom Banh Chok – bowls of rice noodles with fish curry ladled over – as the ubiquitous breakfast dish in Cambodia.

You can read about the extremely laborious process of making Nom Banh Chok rice noodles by hand here, a link to the fascinating and beautifully photographed Eating Asia blog.

The list of ingredients required to make Num/Nom Banh Chok (spellings transliterated from the Cambodian language are many and various). I succeeded in tracking down an authentic recipe which comes from another West/Eastern duo – not Schanberg and Pran this time but Austrian and Cambodian chefs Gustav Auer and Sok Chhong who co-authored the cookbook “From spiders to water lilies” containing recipes from their Phnom Penh restaurant Romdeng (Cambodian for the key flavouring ingredient galangal).

Having tracked down an authentic recipe I wanted to do my best to use authentic ingredients. Whereas most large supermarkets now stock lemongrass, Thai basil, Kaffir lime leaves, Thai fish sauce and coconut cream and milk (and you can get hold of Kaffir limes from the Natoora range carried by online supermarket delivery service Ocado), some of the ingredients listed necessitated a special expedition to Manchester’s Chinatown.

I was delighted to be able to track down galangal, fresh turmeric and something close to the recipe’s specified “Cambodian rhizome” at Kim’s Thai Food Store. What I bought was Boesenbergia Pandurata aka Kaempferia pandurata, Chinese Keys, lesser galangal (though this name is probably incorrect), krachai (Thai), kcheay (Khmer) and kunci (Indonesian).

The aromatics were chopped then blitzed in the food processor to produce 15 tablespoons of precious yellow curry paste:


To complete the curry, a whole new batch of ingredients were needed. Coconut cream, fish sauce and coconut milk are now readily available in supermarkets. I had no idea at the time what type of fish to use, or even if it should be sea or freshwater fish so I chose a fresh and healthy looking Anglesey farmed seabass from my local fishmonger who expertly converted it into fillets. It was a shame to carefully poach and skin it and then pulp it into oblivion as the recipe specifies!

I’ve since read about Cambodia’s enormous inland Tonlé Sap lake which apparently supplies 70% of the protein consumed in Cambodia, including not only fish but shrimps, crabs, snails, frogs and snakes.

The only ingredient I couldn’t get hold of was the Cambodian fish paste called prahok. According to the helpful Cambodian food leaflet “Cambodia on A Plate”, prahok is “a grey paste of preserved fish…(that is) probably the most distinctive flavour in all Cambodian cooking”. I had to make do with a Thai shrimp paste instead (on reflection the UK anchovy paste we call “Gentlemen’s Relish” might have made a good substitute too).

Curry complete, all that was left to do was prepare the all-important rice noodles, accompanying salad and Thai basil and red chilli garnish. Yet another long list of ingredients, some, such as the cucumber and beansprouts easy to obtain, others, such as banana flower (?) and water lily root (??) a little trickier. I was delighted to find a fresh banana flower in Chinatown but the water lily root request defeated both the Chinese and Thai shop assistants. In the end I went for the helpful suggestion of a lotus root which is apparently used raw in salads in some Thai recipes.

The resulting plate of salad was a thing of beauty:


And finally, after about 6 hours spread over 2 days of shopping, chopping, pounding and boiling, we sat down to breakfast:


Contact details

For Oriental vegetables in Manchester:

Hang Won Hong
Connaught Buildings
58-60 George Street
Manchester M1 4HF

Telephone 0161 228 6182

For Thai (and Cambodian) specialities in Manchester:

46 George Street
Manchester M1 4HF

Telephone 0161 228 6263

For the UK’s only Cambodian restaurant

243 Royal College Street
London NW1 9LT

Telephone 0207 284 1116

Recipe for Num Banh Chok – yellow fish and coconut curry with rice noodles and raw Cambodian vegetables

This recipe is adapted from one in the book “From Spiders to Water Lilies” by Gustav Auer and Sok Chhong published as a fundraising project by the Friends International organisation.

Serves 4-6


For the lemongrass paste

200 g young lemongrass stalks (about 15-16 stalks) trimmed and sliced
2cm cube of peeled and roughly chopped galangal
3cm cube peeled and chopped fresh turmeric
4 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, halved
Peel of half a kaffir lime, chopped
2cm cube peeled and chopped Cambodian rhizome

For the curry

300 g fish fillets, poached
3 tablespoons lemongrass paste
2 tablespoons roasted chopped peanuts
500 ml fish stock

250 ml coconut milk
250 ml coconut cream
1 teaspoon prahok (Cambodian fermented fish paste)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
salt to taste
1 tablespoon palm sugar

To accompany the curry

400 g dried weight thin rice noodles, cooked al dente
2 small cucumbers, cut into matchsticks
half a banana flower, soaked in cold water acidulated with kaffir lime juice then thinly sliced just before serving
200 g bean sprouts
2 pieces of water lily root, peeled and thinly sliced

To garnish

red chillies
few Thai basil leaves

First, prepare the lemongrass paste. Using a food processor, blitz the chopped lemongrass into a paste. Add the remaining ingredients and 4-6 tablespoons cold water and blitz again until well combined. According to the original recipe, this paste will keep refrigerated for one day only, so take what you need for the recipe and freeze the rest in individual containers. This quantity of ingredients produced 12 tablespoons of neon-yellow paste which I froze in 3 tablespoon portions.

Next, poach the fish in the stock until just cooked – for thin fish fillets this will take just 2 or 3 minutes. Leave to cool a little then drain off and reserve the stock to add to the curry and skin the fish fillets making sure no small bones remain in the flesh as you do so. Set aside.

Prepare the raw vegetable accompaniments and garnish, leaving the banana flower pieces in iced acidulated water until the last minute as they discolour very quickly.

Weigh, measure and set out all the curry ingredients and necessary kitchen equipment so you can complete the curry quickly without overcooking the rice noodles and fish.

About 20 minutes before you plan to serve the curry, take the banana flower from the iced acidulated water, dry it and shred finely. Add to your serving platter of accompanying raw vegetables.

Next, soak the dried rice noodles in hot water for about 15 minutes until they soften to just al dente. Keep an eye on them as overcooked rice noodles have an unpleasant mushy texture.

You are now ready to complete the curry. Place the cooled cooked and de-skinned fish fillets with the 3 tablespoons lemongrass paste and peanuts into the bowl of a food processor. Blitz to a coarse paste. Set aside. Put 500ml fish stock, the coconut milk, coconut cream and prahok into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring frequently to mix. Add the reserved fish paste, fish sauce, salt and palm sugar, and simmer for 5 more minutes, mixing to incorporate.

To serve, put a large handful of vegetables into each person’s bowl. Add a portion of cooked rice noodles then ladle the fish curry over the top. Garnish with finely sliced deseeded red chillies and a scattering of Thai basil leaves.

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