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 fourth of five posts from Steven, who spent time working in the Cuisine Wat Damnak kitchen, covering a five-course menu and describing some of the techniques and flavor combinations that Chef Joannès Rivière uses to such brilliant effect. Chef Rivière’s recipes have inspired a legion of chefs in Cambodia, both local and foreign. He has graciously supplied some simple recipes and cooking tips to inspire your kitchen, too.
Beef Saraman curry is one of our favorite dishes at Cuisine Wat Damnak. This version, with pumpkin, is especially delicious. This recipe comes from the Cham people, an Islamic ethnic community in Cambodia. Although the Cham maintain their Cambodian identity, they are a distinct group within the country and most observe Islamic religious practices. This includes not eating pork, and for this reason beef features heavily in Cham cuisine. Most beef sellers at the markets are female Chams, identifiable by their headscarves.
Any cut of beef can be used, but Chef Rivière advises choosing a joint that requires slow cooking, such as a cheek or shank. The slow cooking will yield not only tender meat but a rich broth that is the basis for the saraman sauce. Pumpkin is the best vegetable to include in this dish, but some greens could also be served as an accompaniment, along with a bowl of rice.
Beef saraman curry with pumpkin
1 liter fresh coconut water with cream
4 beef cheeks or shanks (see Chef’s Notes)
A small handful of star anise
A small handful of cassia bark (see Chef’s Notes)
1 large piece of galangal, sliced
5 lemongrass stalks, crushed
A handful of kaffir lime leaf
50 ml fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar
For the curry paste:
2 thumb-sized pieces of turmeric root, chopped
1 large galangal root, chopped
Small handful garlic cloves
Peel of 1 kaffir lime peel
300 g sliced lemongrass
4 hot chilies
1 tablespoon prahok
1 heaped tablespoon of roasted, ground star anise and cassia
1-2 heaped tablespoons of dried chili paste (see Chef’s Notes)
1 cup toasted peanuts
1 cup toasted coconut
1 quarter of a pumpkin, kabocha, or butternut squash
1 heaped tablespoon each of roasted, ground star anise and cassia
- Separate the fresh coconut water from its cream: Place the coconut water in a plastic container and refrigerate. The cream will rise to the top. Skim off with a ladle and keep chilled in a separate container.
- Prepare the beef: Preheat the oven to 270 Celsius. If using cheeks, remove any membrane along with any excess fat. If using shank, cut the meat into identical-sized pieces, about 200 g apiece. Heat vegetable oil in a wide pot. Sear the beef in the oil until a nice caramelized colour is achieved.
- To the meat in the pot, add the small handfuls of star anise and cassia, the sliced galangal root, the 5 crushed lemongrass stalks, and the handful of kaffir lime leaf. Stir in the coconut water, the fish sauce, and 1 tablespoon of palm sugar.
- Cover and place in the oven. Cook until it starts to bubble. Then turn the heat down to 170 Celsius and cook for four hours, or until the meat is tender. (See Chef’s Note.)
- When the meat is cooked, remove it from the pot and place on a cooling rack. When cool, place in the fridge. Strain the broth and set aside.
- Prepare the saraman sauce: Blitz the curry paste ingredients together in a food processor until a paste is formed. Or, if you are feeling up to it, grind them together in a large mortar and pestle. Meanwhile, heat a bit of the fat skimmed from the beef stock in a large pan and add 1 tablespoon of prahok. Cook until golden.
- Add the curry paste and the tablespoons of ground star anise and ground cassia. Cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the dried chilli paste and mix well. Add the beef stock and season with some additional fish sauce, if needed to season. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the reserved coconut cream and simmer for another 5 minutes. Blend with a hand blender and strain.
- In a blender, mix a handful of roasted peanuts with a handful of toasted coconut until a paste is formed. Add the nut paste to the strained sauce. Bring to a boil, then blend again with the hand blender. Set aside.
- Cook the pumpkin. If steaming: Peel the pumpkin and cut into two-inch chunks. (If the chunks are not of equal size they will cook unevenly.) Spread evenly in the steaming chamber and sprinkle with salt. Steam until tender. If roasting: Place the unpeeled pumpkin segment in a preheated 200 C oven unpeeled and roast until tender. Allow to cool, then carefully peel and cut into chunks.
- Fry the shallots: Peel the shallots and slice them thinly. Cover the slices with water, then drain. Heat a wok with an inch of vegetable oil in the bottom. Line a plate with some paper towels. Pat the shallots dry with more paper towel. Put the shallots into the wok and stir gently until a golden color. Remove from the oil using a sieve and spread on the paper-towel-covered plate, where they will continue to color and crisp up.
- To assemble the dish, you will need 2 pans, one with a lid. Slice the chilled beef into slices about 2 cm thick. Place the slices in the lidded pan together with the pumpkin chunks. Add a ladle of the sauce and a ladle of water. Set on medium heat and allow to thoroughly heat through. Be careful not to let the sauce boil. Taste and add salt if needed.
- Serve in heated bowls, with a ladleful of sauce over the top. Sprinkle with some toasted coconut, toasted peanuts, and some of the fried shallots, and serve. Offer steamed rice alongside.
Beef in Cambodia is notoriously inconsistent and sometimes it can take longer to cook. If you are planning on preparing this dish, then it is advisable to cook the beef the day before to allow for additional cooking time if needed. After cooking, the meat should be properly chilled in order to slice it properly.
Cassia bark is widely available in Cambodia, but cinnamon does the same job.
The dried chili paste can be bought ready made from the market. To make your own, soak dried chilies in water, squeeze them dry, and puree in a food processor. If the puree is too dry, add water until it is the right consistency.
The exact composition of curry paste in Cambodia is, as with many Cambodian recipes, up to the person who is making it, so the amounts you use of each ingredient can vary according to your taste. As a general rule of thumb, though, Chef Rivière advises using about a quarter as much turmeric as galangal, and roughly one kaffir lime for every 300-400 grams of galangal. Lemongrass, the other main ingredient, can be bought ready sliced at the market; 3 large handfuls of sliced lemongrass to every large galangal root should give a nice balanced paste. However, you can change the proportions until you find the combination that you most prefer.
About the debate to use shrimp paste or prahok: “It really depends on who you talk to. People say that shrimp paste is not Cambodian, but there’s an island near Koh Kong called Koh Kapi, shrimp paste island. When I was shown the recipe by an older Khmer Muslim woman, she used shrimp paste. I don’t use kapi personally, because I like the taste of prahok. I think at the end of the day it’s a matter of personal taste.”
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. Masses 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.