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 third 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.
Third Course: Pork Rib and Squid Soup with Baby Ginger and Purple Sweet Potato
Soup plays a major part in Cambodian food culture and is featured on every menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak. A large pot of goodness that the whole family can enjoy together reflects the collective element of Khmer society.
This week Chef Joannès Rivière shares his recipe for a soup of pork ribs and squid, both dried and fresh, that also uses baby ginger (if you can get it) and purple potatoes. One great advantage of living in Cambodia is that much of the meat here is organically fed and free range, and that certainly includes pork. Here the pork ribs are used to make the soup stock as well as appearing in the finished dish.
Pork Rib and Squid Soup with Baby Ginger and Purple Sweet Potato
1 rack of pork ribs (approx. 1 kilo)
1 small dried squid (see Chef’s Notes)
10 cloves of garlic, whole
1 large thumb of ginger root, chopped
6 shallots, sliced
8 dried black mushrooms
½ kilo fresh squid
50 ml fish sauce
1 heaped tablespoon powdered palm sugar
Baby ginger roots with stem and leaves (see Chef’s Notes)
Purple sweet potatoes (see Chef’s Notes)
- Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan and sear the pork ribs until you get a nice caramelized color. Remove them to a large pot. In the same frying pan, sear the dried squid until brown. Add it to the pot with the ribs.
- In the same frying pan, brown the garlic, shallots, and ginger. (Add additional oil if needed.) Add them to the pot as well.
- Cut the heads off the fresh squid and add the heads to the pot, along with the 8 dried mushrooms.
- Cover the ingredients in the pot with water. Add the fish sauce and palm sugar. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Meanwhile, reduce the pot to a simmer and cook for 2 hours, or until the ribs are tender.
- Remove the cooked ribs from the stock and place on a cooling rack. If you plan on deboning the ribs, do it while they are still warm, as the bone will slide out a lot more easily.
- Strain the broth, discarding the solids, and refrigerate. When the ribs are cool enough, put them in the fridge, too. If you want to serve them on the bone, wait until they are cold, then cut into portions 2 or 3 ribs wide.
- Take the headless squid and peel off the purple film. Under a trickle of water from the tap, scoop out the innards and remove the plasticky spine. Rinse the squid off and slice into rings.
- Take the baby ginger and cut the leaves from the stalks. Select a few whole, unblemished leaves and roll them up, then slice very thinly. Set aside. Clean and trim the stem and root of the baby ginger. Slice thinly with a mandolin or use a knife to cut into thin slices or julienne. (If this is too much hassle, buy some pre-julienned ginger.
- Prepare the purple sweet potatoes: Wash and peel and cook in a steamer. When cooked, cut into serving-size wedges or chunks. (If you don’t have a steamer, see the Chef’s Note.)
- Assemble the soup: Heat up the broth and add the ribs and the sweet potato chunks. Cut the heat to low and cook until the meat and potatoes are heated through.
- Have ready some heated bowls. Bring the soup to a boil, add the sliced baby ginger and allow to cook for a minute, then remove the soup from the heat. Place two or three pieces of sweet potato in each bowl. Arrange the pork ribs on top of the potatoes. Scatter slices of baby ginger over the ribs.
- Meanwhile, place a frying pan on high heat and add a splash of vegetable oil. When the pan is very hot, add the seasoned squid rings and cook for 20 to 30 seconds. (Do not leave them in the pan for too long or they will go rubbery.) Add the squid rings to the soup bowls.
- To serve, pour over some of the broth and garnish with the finely sliced baby ginger leaves. Offer a bowl of steamed rice alongside.
Dried squid is a very good natural source of MSG. Don’t use too big a piece, however, advises Chef Rivière, or the broth will be too strong. The aim is to add a bit of body to the soup, he says, not overwhelm it.
Purple sweet potatoes are a tricky vegetable to cook, the chef warns, as they are prone to falling apart if even slightly overcooked. The best option is to peel them and steam them whole. If you don’t have a steamer, you can cut them into wedges and boil them until only partly cooked. Then oil a tray, spread the potato wedges on it, and place in a 250 C oven. Turn them after 15 minutes. They should be done in about half an hour, but check with a fork to make sure.
Baby ginger has a long green stem and long green leaves. The flavor is quite strong, which is why Chef Rivière advises blanching it briefly in the soup, as this will take the sting out of it. Baby ginger is not always available; if you can’t find it, you can use julienned ginger and some sliced spring onions.
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.