"Cambodian food? Really?"
I was in Goodwill with a passel of friends a couple of weeks ago, browsing the cookbook section, when Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors
caught my eye.
Lately, I've been thinking quite a bit about how "eating seasonally" in the Pacific Northwest differs from eating seasonally in, say, California's Central Valley (where I grew up) or Florida (where the abomination that is the winter tomato hails from, largely produced by slave labor) and how it's probably much more akin to eating seasonally in somewhere like Germany or the Czech Republic.So I figured this book (about which I'd heard good things) might prove a good resource for some nice, hearty, peasanty, Eastern European-type dishes.
To my surprise, Jeff Smith's definition of "immigrant ancestors" spanned an amazingly diverse range: Armenian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Latvian and more–including Cambodian. And I was forced to realize that although I grew up in a city with a very high number of Cambodian immigrants, I had lots of school friends from Cambodian families, and my mother taught for years at an elementary school with a majority Cambodian population… I really didn't know the first thing about Cambodian food.
Jeff Smith's take on Cambodian cooking is that it tends to produce sweeter, gentler, substantially less fiery food than other Southeast Asian cuisines. With some ingredients and techniques dating back to the Khmer Empire, it's also a very ancient–or medieval, really, which is right up my alley–cuisine. After tasting this deceptively simple soup, with its many layers of flavor and hint of sweetness, I'm excited about trying more foods from this often-overlooked corner of the world.
A bonus: I got to learn how to peel and devein shrimp today, which I've somehow gone 34 years without knowing how to do. It's not hard. Just time-consuming. And this soup could easily be made with shrimp bought already peeled and deveined; I thought it would be a character-building experience to do it myself.
And a second bonus: now I have a bunch of shrimp shells hanging out in my freezer, waiting to be rendered into stock.
Cambodian Sweet-and-Sour Soup
Serves six to eight
Part the First
6 cups chicken stock or broth
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed thoroughly of fat and cut into thin julienne strips (this is much easier to do if you freeze the meat for half an hour or so first)
1 cup fresh cored, chopped pineapple (apparently you can use canned, but I can't abide canned pineapple… ecch)
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce (the recipe called for a fresh tomato cut into wedges, but see above note about winter tomatoes)
1 large zucchini (or 2 small ones), halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4" slices
3 Tbsp distilled white vinegar
3 Tbsp nam pla or nuoc mam fish sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Part the Second
1/2 pound medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined (and cut into chunks if they're fairly large)
1/4 pound lump crabmeat, flaked with a fork (quality is important here–I would recommend ponying up for fresh crab rather than settling for the canned stuff)
A dash of ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Combine all Part the First ingredients in a soup pot. Bring just to a boil; cover; reduce heat to as low as your stove can go and simmer, covered, for one hour.
After an hour of simmering, mix in shrimp, crab and pepper. Increase heat ever so slightly and cook, uncovered, just until shrimp turn pink and soup is heated through. This should take only three or four minutes.
Stir in half the cilantro; ladle into bowls; sprinkle remaining cilantro attractively overtop.
We had this with steamed rice with butter and soy sauce, and after we'd eaten all the chunky bits from our bowls we stirred the rice into the remaining broth–it was delicious.
This is definitely one of the nicest, as well as the most unusual, soups I've made so far. It sounds a bit weird, but it's fo-sho worth making for yourself anyway.