Neath Pal’s Cambodian Chicken Curry

Venturing into Cambodia, we come to this yellow curry—yellow from the use of fresh turmeric. Neath Pal’s family moved from Cambodia as Pol Pot rose to power. His father was a military attaché and so was able take the family to South Korea. From there a family in Providence sponsored a teenaged Neath to come to Rhode Island, where he would grow up. He has stayed in Providence, raising his family, running a Cambodian restaurant for many years, and now teaching cooking at Johnson & Wales University.

Over lunch Neath said that the differences among curries in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam are nuanced. All rely on the trinity—lemongrass, Thai lime, and galangal—as well as shallots and chiles. And the sugar used is typically palm sugar, which he says is less sweet, more like maple sugar than regular white sugar.

The grinding of the curry paste, traditionally done start to finish in a big, heavy mortar, is taken seriously in Cambodia. When Neath traveled there recently with a group of students, one of their hosts explained that the parents of a future groom don’t even need to meet his future bride. They only need to hear the way the bride-to-be handles the mortar and pestle. Not overly fast, rhythmical, strong, but in no hurry. You should be able to hear the sound of the individual leaves being smashed. In that way, they could determine if she would be right for their son.

Neath advocates first pounding the woody rhizomes, followed by the softer ingredients, then pureeing them in a food processor (with a little water if you need to get them moving), and finishing them in the mortar. The ingredients can all be ground in a blender or food processor and then finished in a mortar, but the mortar-processor-mortar method really does bring out more flavor, he says.

Other differences between the various Southeast Asian curries have to do with the two important umami ingredients—fish sauce and shrimp paste—which vary from region to region. He favors a dry shrimp paste to the very wet paste. The fish sauce in Vietnam is particularly strong and salty. Cambodian fish sauce is gentler, he explains. In Cambodia, his family used the leaves of the lemongrass as well, which are incredibly fragrant. But the flavor is volatile, and they would be dried out and useless after shipping stateside, so you can really only get them where they grow.

Cambodians also use the roots of the coriander plant, which can be found in some Asian markets, and are likewise very fragrant. Neath believes that the best pepper in the world grows in Cambodia, both black and a green version, called kampot pepper. It’s these things that are the real difference in the cuisines.

This is a wonderful yellow curry; the star anise sets it apart from other countries’ curries. You can make a curry, or sauce, and then cook your protein in it, as is customary, but Neath loves to rub the chili paste directly on chicken, or on pork ribs, and grill it. He urges cooks learning this style of cooking not to hew too closely to the recipe. “We don’t measure. We taste, we smell—that’s how you learn to cook.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

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Ingredients

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons Cambodian Yellow Curry Paste or store-bought yellow curry paste
  • 1 (3-pound/1.5-kilogram) chicken, cut into 2-inch/5-centimeter pieces (see Note)
  • 1 pound/450 grams sweet potatoes, cut into 1½-inch/4-centimeter cubes
  • 8 ounces/225 grams carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch/2.5-centimeter pieces
  • 2 yellow onions, cut in a thick julienne
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 (14-ounce/400-milliliter) can coconut milk
  • 3 cups/710 milliliters Easy Overnight Chicken Stock or store-bought chicken broth
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar or maple sugar, or 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • Lime juice as needed
  • 1 (8-ounce/225-gram) can sliced bamboo shoots, drained, or one fresh whole bamboo shoot, sliced
  • 8 scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish
  • ½ cup/30 grams chopped Thai chiles, for garnish (optional)

Method

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven, and sear the chicken until it’s nicely browned. Push the pieces to the side and add the curry paste, stirring to cook it for thirty seconds or so, then stir the chicken so that it is coated with the curry paste. Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and 1 teaspoon salt and stir for 1 minute. Add the coconut milk, chicken stock, and star anise and bring to just below a boil.

Add the fish sauce and palm sugar and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Add a squeeze of lime juice. Taste as you go. Add more fish sauce, curry paste or seasonings, salt, sugar, or lime juice as needed.

Add the bamboo shoots, bring back to a simmer, and serve, garnished with scallions and Thai chiles if you want it very spicy.