Feb 7, 2014

Khmer Flavors

As a fairly frequent traveler, I'm wary of scams: tuk tuks offering to take you on a "tour" only to veer off in the direction of gem shops, cute children selling souvenirs on the streets, strange powders masquerading as true spices. I was prepared to ignore the people who were simply begging; I was prepared to contribute in some other way. I was, I thought, wary and savvy and in control. Traveling alone requires you to repeat these self-assertions before heading into the fray. But I wasn't prepared for the woman with an infant on her hip who approached me and said,
          "Madame, I don't need money I need milk."

           "What?" I said, caught off guard walking down a busy street lined with fish tanks where tourists dunked their feet so the fish could nibble off their dead skin.
           "I need milk for my baby" and she waved an empty bottle. I processed what she was saying, and looked at the little baby tied to her hip with colorful fabric. He was smiling. I noticed his dimples.

          "Uh, sure" I said. "I can buy you some milk." It was better, I recalled, to give something like food instead of money that might just be handed over to a "pimp" who used the babies as bait for tourists to hand over cash.
         "Oh, thank you, thank you" she said, and we stepped into a store, a ramshackle supermarket piled high with dusty sacks of rice. My baby-woman combo ran down an aisle and picked up a can of powdered milk. She waved and then put up two fingers, indicating maybe I could buy her two cans of milk? I shrugged and said "Ok, ok" thinking how much could some powdered milk cost? The average hotel cost about $15 a night, the average meal $4. She lumbered back up the aisle, smiling, and placed the cans on the counter and I pulled out a five dollar bill.

The woman at the register typed some things into her register and then said,
           "Fifty dollars."
           "What?" I said, thinking she was out of her mind or maybe just didn't speak good English. And she pointed to the screen, indicating each can of milk cost $25.00. "No. No way. Too much" I said, recognizing the scam (where they likely just put the milk back on the shelves and wait for the next sucker.) I put the five dollars back in my pocket and made for the door, my heart racing. The woman-baby combo ran after me,
           "Wait! Madame, maybe one?" I kept walking. "Some money? Please Madame!" And I told her no, and kept walking, pissed at falling for this scam out of my baby compassion. She touched my arm, and then got in front of me, to body block me. "Stop it!" I said, and she slapped me on the arm.

Lemongrass helped. Bewildered by my near brush with milk-disguised burglary, I slumped into a cafe on the outskirts of town hoping to avoid any more gnarly interactions. I was handed a menu and I pointed to a picture that looked like chicken with green and red bits. I think it said "Spicy Chicken." While I waited, I watched a small TV in the corner flickering with some Khmer-style drama, and watched the other people in the cafe, mostly ladies who were just smiling huge smiles, laughing and chatting. That's the thing about the Khmer people—everyone was always smiling—even that baby who may or may not have needed milk. What arrived was a fragrant plate of thinly sliced sautéed chicken tossed with chopped lemongrass, basil, torn kaffir lime leaves and finely chopped chilies. It smelled amazing. I studied my condiments - pickled chilies, chili sauce, and "season sauce" which I determined was soy sauce. None needed. It came with a bowl of rice, the only necessary accompaniment.

This trip made me more aware of a simple fact. There is no way to visit a place and simply taste it. A "flavor" - be it a single spice, herb or blend, is not only made distinct by its natural history, its organic structure, or its geography, but also by its relationship to people. When I set out to Cambodia seeking spices, I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know anything about the Khmer Rouge genocide. The Khmer Rouge, a crazy group of killers trained by the Vietcong and led by a man named Pol pot, were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, about 20% of the population. This was in the 70's. Today, some forty years later, Cambodia is peaceful but land mines still dot the countryside, and families are still struggling to piece their lives back together. A movie called "The Killing Fields" was made in 1984 about the Khmer Rouge regime. Maybe you've seen it.

My goal in traveling to these different locations is not only to find out about the unique flavors, but also to learn the history of events, the inter-weavings of politics, economics, and religion that so define a region. Spices are my entry point, my lens.

Throughout my trip I ate the dish two more times, once on the outskirts of Angkor Thom, and once in Phnom Penh. It seemed fairly common, even a staple. I've seen versions of it in Thailand (though without the lemongrass.) But the fact that I ate it first at a nameless roadside cafe with plastic chairs made it all the better. It wasn't "trying" to be anything, or convince me of anything, or win any accolades. There was just the bright clarity of flavors - the fresh lemongrass that had a slight crunch and the chilies with their floral heat cooled by the minty-menthol quality of the holy basil. And that first day especially, this dish mattered.

The experience of eating and enjoying this dish in all its simple authenticity helped dissolve the bad feelings associated with the scam. The food, just protein and rice, lifted by the aromatic qualities of the spices, became something uniquely Cambodian; it allowed me to interact with an aspect of its culture and history that didn't make me sad. Call me a flavor-worshipper, but good things can and do heal; maybe that's the secret to Cambodian cuisine.

Khmer Chicken with Lemongrass, Basil & Kaffir Lime

While this dish calls for just a handful of aromatic ingredients, there is a Khmer blend (or paste) called "Kroeng" that contains lemongrass and kaffir lime along with other spices, and would also make a delicious sauce for chicken. And believe it or not, Whole Foods Supermarkets (in the U.S.) carries fresh Kaffir Lime leaves. If you can't find any, that's too bad, but try using the zest of a lime.
Also, use your chilis wisely! Thai chilies, also called bird's eye chili, are pretty hot, so using 1 per person usually does the trick. If you want, scrape out the seeds for less heat. To each her own.

Enough for 2 people. Serve with lots of fluffy white rice.


2 TB oil, such as canola
1/2 cup chopped lemongrass stalks (about 4, six-inch sections of stalks)
2 bird's eye chilies, chopped
3-4 fresh kaffir lime leaves, twisted and torn (or the zest of one lime!)
1 TB chopped ginger
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
2 TB sugar, preferably raw sugar
2 TB soy sauce
2 TB white vinegar
1/2 tsp oyster sauce (fish sauce will also work!)
1 bunch (about 1 cup of leaves) fresh Thai or Holy basil
lime slices, to squeeze over top

This dish cooks best in a wok, but a sauté pan will also work. Make sure you have everything chopped, measured and prepared because the dish cooks very quickly once it gets going.

Heat the oil in your wok on medium heat. Add the lemongrass and stir for 2 minutes, then add the chilies and torn kaffir lime and stir for 30 seconds. Add the ginger and garlic, making sure to pile it on top of the lemongrass so it doesn't touch the pan directly and burn. Let it sit there for 10 seconds, then stir to combine.

Add the chicken, toss around and shake the pan, then add the sugar, soy sauce, vinegar and oyster sauce and stir once more. Let the chicken cook for a minute and then shake the pan, tossing it so it's coated in sauce and gets cooked on all sides. 


  1. Brave and beautiful you. This story had me all over the map, literally! My heart raced with worry and hope, then doubt and shame about the baby-woman. Trust on a tightrope. Compassion too. The worst. The strangest part about this post? I thought of you on Tuesday night when I made a coconut milk Thai noodle soup of kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, inspired by your departure gift. We picked up saffron too. Missing you, cheering you on, and thanking you for always being a teacher and lens for me. Xx

  2. Claire, you bring so much intensity and subtlety to these flavor stories. Thanks for sharing them with us.


  3. Ahhh, the baby gimmick...I would have done the same! As always, so lovely and lively to read about your journey. Thanks for taking me to Cambodia. While reading, I could smell and taste the meal, feel the energy and in my own way...participate in the journey....thanks for sharing. Where are we going next? Travel safely and eat well. Your coffee mate JH