Citizens – I owe you all a great apology, as it has been nearly an entire MONTH since I last posted a recipe of repute for your gastronomic elucidation! I was tragically laid low by an horrific case of depression, one so severe it confined me to bed these last few days and previously left me with a lingering malaise during these last few weeks such that I had no desire, joy or energy to give to TFD Nation. The good news is that with proper rest and help from my Doctor, I am now feeling My old self again and am ready to share several new recipes that have been accumulating – starting with this one!
The Sultan of Spice has always had a huge love affair with the glorious cuisine of Cambodia, and I have been privileged indeed to share several notable recipes already here for the Citizens of TFD – just search under ‘Cambodia’ in the search box to the upper right of your screen or click here. Today, I am delighted to share a personal favorite that will delight carnivores and vegetable lovers alike – I speak of nothing less than the glory that alone is plea sach ko – Cambodian beef salad!
While the origins of plea sach ko are shrouded from observing eyes by the thick mists of antiquity, the supremely flavorful history of Cambodian food – good and bad – is well-documented indeed and it is this I will share as the preamble to the recipe for plea sach ko itself!
Cambodian cuisine is an umbrella term for the cuisines of all ethnic groups in Cambodia, whereas Khmer cuisine (Khmer: សិល្បៈធ្វើម្ហូបខ្មែរ; lit. ’Khmer culinary art’) refers specifically to the cuisine of the ethnic Khmers. Due to the mutual historic interaction and shared influences, modern Cambodian cuisine has many similarities with its neighboring cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Khmer cuisine can be classified into peasant, elite and royal cuisine, although the difference between the royal and popular cuisine is not as pronounced as in the case of Thailand and Laos. The royal and elite dishes use more varied and higher-quality ingredients, and contain more meat, while the peasant food is made from simpler and more accessible ingredients.
Due to Cambodia’s geographic location, rice and fish (especially freshwater fish) are the two most important sources of nutrients in the Cambodian diet. Rice is a staple food generally eaten at every meal. It is believed to have been cultivated in the territory of Cambodia since 2,000 to 5,000 B.C. The advanced hydraulic engineering developed during the Khmer Empire allowed the Khmer to harvest rice and other crops three to four times a year.
According to the International Rice Research Institute, there are approximately 2,000 rice varieties indigenous to Cambodia bred over the centuries by the Cambodian rice farmers. One of them – “Malys Angkor” (ម្លិះអង្គរ, Mlih Ángkô) – has been regarded the world’s best rice.
Many spices found in Khmer cuisine were introduced by the Indian merchants around the 2nd century. The Indian influence on cuisine among other aspects of Khmer culture was already noted by a Chinese visitor around 400 AD. The trace of Indianization can be seen in the coconut-based curries (ការី, kari), as well as boiled red and white sweets. The Chinese began arriving in Khmer Empire in the 13th century, bringing their cuisine with them, from which Cambodian cuisine adopted an extensive use of noodles and stir frying.
From the 9th to the 15th century the culinary influence of the growing Khmer Empire spread beyond the borders of modern-day Cambodia into what is now Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The Khmer palace food developed into a refined royal cuisine and through the Khmer royal cooks brought to the Ayutthaya Kingdom strongly influenced the Thai royal cuisine.
The original Khmer palace recipes were modified in the Ayutthaya Kingdom, where during the reign of King Narai they also acquired a Portuguese influence and eventually reintroduced back into Cambodia as the Siamese armies attacked into Cambodia. New Zealand Cambodian chef Kethana Dunnet has even dubbed Cambodian cuisine “the original Thai cuisine”.
Nowadays, the flavor principles of many Khmer dishes, such as sour fish soups, stews and coconut-based curries, including fish amok, are similar to Central Thai cuisine, although Khmer dishes contain much less chili and sugar and make greater use of aromatic spices, such as cardamom, star anise, cloves, nutmeg, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, coriander, and kaffir lime leaves.
Both Thai and Khmer royal cuisines used special flavoring pastes made out of various herbs and spices that were added to curries, soups, and stews. Khmer cuisine has relatively less in common with Northeast Thai and Lao cuisines, however, they all utilize a fish paste in their cooking (called prahok in Khmer, pla ra in Thai and padaek in Lao), which could be a Khmer influence as both Laos and Northeast Thailand historically was part of the Khmer Empire.
With Vietnamese and Lao cuisine it shares the French influence as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all part of the French Indochina. In the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish began introducing various new food crops, such as tomatoes, papaya, pineapple, corn, potato, sweet potato, cassava and chili from the Americas that were incorporated into local dishes, while the French introduced pâté, salads, wine, coffee, asparagus and baguettes.
Cambodian cuisine has also been directly influenced by Vietnamese cuisine after the Vietnamese colonization of Cambodia from 1834 to 1867 and Cambodia being under Vietnamese control from 1979 to 1989. Overall, Cambodian dishes are usually less salty than Vietnamese dishes, but less sweet, sourer and more citrusy than South Vietnamese dishes.
In the decades after World War II, many Cambodian urban middle-class and elite families employed cooks trained to prepare French dishes, and the children of these households often did not learn cooking themselves. The transmission of Cambodian traditional culinary knowledge was even more disrupted by the subsequent war, starvation and refugee crisis in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge gained power, the rice production in Cambodia had dropped by 84% in comparison with 1970 and the policies of the Khmer Rouge (such as the ban of private cultivation of food crops, ban of foraging, ban of private ownership of foodstuff, ban of private cooking and ban of private eating combined with the unattainable rice production quotas, forced labor and insufficient food rations) resulted in one of the deadliest famines in modern history, during which from 1975 to 1979 an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million Cambodians perished (10–20% of the country’s population).
In 2004, Malis, the first Cambodian fine dining restaurant in Phnom Penh, was opened. Since the early 2010s there has been an emerging grassroots culinary movement in Siem Reap termed “New Cambodian Cuisine” loosely consisting of six Cambodian chefs and restaurateurs (Pola Siv, Sothea Seng, Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan, Mengly Mork and Pheak Tim) experimenting with and modernizing traditional Cambodian dishes. More recently, mobile applications dedicated to Khmer traditional recipes have also been developed, such as “Khmer Cooking Recipe” downloaded more than 100,000 times on Google Play and “Khmer Cooking”.
In December 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation launched an official “Food Diplomacy 2021–2023” campaign as part of a larger economic diplomacy strategy. The ministry also established a program to train Cambodian cooks for serving in Cambodian embassies and a program for providing ambassador spouses with knowledge about the Khmer cuisine.
In February 2021 the ministry published a cookbook “The Taste of Angkor” as a culinary promotion tool for Cambodian diplomatic missions abroad. A 1960 Cambodian cookbook and culinary guide “The Culinary Art of Cambodia” by Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana republished in May 2021 by Angkor Database was also included in the campaign. In June 2021 a series of promotional videos under the slogan “Taste Cambodia” featuring Khmer foods and culinary activities in different Cambodian regions commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia were released.
While the origins of plea sach ko are unknown, today it is an extremely popular dish throughout the country, enjoyed in humble roadside street food stalls and fine dining restaurants alike. It is a most savory, spicy and herbaceous salad, typically coming in two forms: with raw beef ‘cooked’ in lime juice (much like the seafood in ceviche) or a grilled version that is typically served to Westerners. I – of course – will share only the most authentic version of the salad, and it is delicious indeed!
To make it, you’re going to need a pound of top-quality beef filet, as it is the beating heart of this recipe – preferably prime grade and it MUST be supremely fresh (tell your butcher you’re serving it raw, even though it will in fact be ‘cooked’ by the citric acid in the lime juice). To flavor it, you’re going to need some Cambodian prahok, which is very similar to a thick fish paste (it’s made from fermented mudfish) and it is a primary flavor profile in this dish.
Genuine prahok seems to be unavailable in the United States currently, but you can effectively simulate it in a milder form by mashing top-quality anchovy (only Ortiz brand will do, IMHO!) with the best-quality fish sauce on the market (this is it!). I personally prefer my hacked version to genuine prahok, as the original is POWERFULLY fragrant and strong, but go with your personal tastes here.
Fresh kaffir lime leaves may be purchased from here, and excellent palm sugar can be easily found on Amazon here (remember to discard the wax protecting the sugar!) – the rest of the ingredients are pretty readily available in your local grocery store or (if you’re lucky enough to have one) Asian marketplace.
Citizens, this recipe for plea sach ko will assuredly become a favored dish at your table, and I truly hope you enjoy My rendition of a classic Cambodian beef salad – and thank you again for your understanding concerning the undesired break from posting!
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