Since it opened three years ago, Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap has become a critically acclaimed culinary institution, attracting patrons from all over the world. Many consider it the mecca for modern Cambodian cuisine.
This is the first of five posts from Steven of Siem Reap Food Tours, who has worked in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen, describing some of the techniques and flavor combinations that Chef Joannès Rivière uses to such brilliant effect. Chef Rivière has graciously supplied some simple recipes and cooking tips for you to try at home.
First Course: Prawn, Rambutan, and Lotus Root Salad
Cuisine Wat Damnak, simple in its concept, presents traditional Cambodian recipes and flavors in a contemporary fashion. Chef Joannès Rivière’s honest and stylish approach has inspired many attempts to emulate him, but no one else seems able to capture the warmth created by the French-born chef’s high regard for Cambodian culture and by the high quality of the ingredients he uses.
One of his sources of inspiration is Le Guide Culinaire Cambodgien (translated as The Cambodian Cookbook), a record of classic Khmer cuisine compiled in the 1960s by the sister of then King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk. The princess who put this cookbook together was passionate about Cambodian food, and her book documents the state of the country’s cuisine prior to the devastation of the Khmer Rouge period.
A recipe that Chef Rivière derived from the princess’s tome is a first-course salad of fresh prawns, crunchy lotus root and sweet rambutans. The chef says, “If the lotus root does not appeal to you, then you can substitute some seasonal tropical fruits.”
Prawn, Rambutan, and Lotus Root Salad
1 kg fresh tiger prawns
3 lotus roots
1 kg rambutans (see Chef’s Note)
vinegar (preferably rice wine, but cider vinegar will do just fine)
long parsley, finely chopped (see Chef’s Note)
spring onions, finely sliced
500 g tamarind pulp
For the tuek prahem dressing:
75 g roasted peanuts
100 g toasted coconut
500 g tamarind pulp
10 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp liquid palm sugar (see Chef’s Note)
- Prepare the prawns. Wash them and remove the heads and shells. Refrigerate.
- Peel the lotus root and slice thinly, cutting diagonally across. Boil for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Strain, then place back into a pan, cover with water, and add a splash of vinegar. Boil for 5 minutes longer. Strain the sliced lotus root. Cover with water to which you’ve added lemon juice.
- Peel the rambutans and discard the pip. Break up flesh or slice into smaller pieces.
- Make tamarind paste: Place the tamarind pulp in a pan. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, then allow to cool. When cool, push the pulp through a colander to separate the puree from the stones. Discard the stones. The puree should be the consistency of tomato paste. If it is too thick, add a splash of water.
- Make the tuek prahem: Grind the roasted peanuts with the toasted coconut. Chop up 10 cloves of garlic and fry in vegetable oil until they start to turn brown. Set the garlic on a kitchen towel and allow to crisp up.
- Complete the tuek prahem: Caramelize the liquid palm sugar until it turns a dark rich brown. Add 200 ml of water and 1 heaping tablespoon of the tamarind paste. Place in a pan over medium heat and whisk, making sure the sugar completely dissolves into the water. Add a pinch of salt. Stir in the ground peanuts and coconut and the fried garlic, after first setting aside small amounts of both peanut-coconut mixture and garlic to sprinkle on top later. Blend the tuek prahem with a hand blender or whisk vigorously.
- Cook the shrimp: Pour some vegetable or peanut oil into a pan on medium/high heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper to taste. When the oil is hot, place the shrimp in the pan and cook until seared on one side. Turn over and allow the second side to turn golden, but be careful not to overcook. As soon as the shrimp are cooked through, remove to a plate lined with a cloth to soak up any excess oil.
- Assemble the salad: Put the lotus root and rambutan flesh in a bowl. Add some tuek prahem and mix well. Arrange on individual plates. Place the shrimp on top. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and spring onion. Scatter the reserved ground peanut-coconut mixture and fried garlic over the top and serve.
The tuek prahem dressing is a very popular condiment in Cambodia and you will find it on the table in most restaurants and households. It is rich and sweet in flavor, so Rivière advises not to overdo it when dressing the salad, as you do not want to suffocate the flavors of the other ingredients.If you would prefer your version of tuek prahem to be more nutty, add more peanuts. If you want it to be sweeter, add more palm sugar. If you’d like it thinner, add a bit more water.
Long parsley is originally from South America; it is called culantro in Spanish. In Cambodia, it is primarily used as a cheap substitute for coriander, during the parts of the year that it is too hot to grow coriander. Flat-leaf (Italian) parsley can be substituted.
Bear in mind that Cambodian lotus roots are much smaller in diameter compared to their Chinese or Vietnamese counterparts, usually a maximum of 4 cm. They are also much tougher, and that is why they need to cook for so long.
Some rambutans are native to Cambodia and are smaller than the more common, larger variety. Either are good to use in this dish, but the locally grown ones have a slightly sweeter taste.
The palm sugar used in this recipe is the gooey stuff available at the market. It is a staple in every Cambodian kitchen and it caramelizes far more easily than the powdered kind.
A note about Cambodian cooking
Rivière points out that Cambodian cooking, and indeed South East Asian cooking generally, is by no means an exact science. The recipes he has provided feature all of the ingredients you will need and the techniques required to execute the dishes, but the exact amounts used will depend on your taste.
Use the ingredients sensibly and taste as you go. Lots of sugar will obviously make a dish too sweet, while not enough fish sauce may leave the dish bland and underseasoned.
The more you cook a cuisine the more accustomed you become to the basics involved. Certain ingredients come up again and again and you will learn what they do and how to use them properly. We have tried to be as clear as possible in the presentation of these recipes, but they all require you to just roll up your sleeves and give them a go.
If you’re in Siem Reap, be sure to make a reservation at Chef Rivière’s restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak.