Vichet Eats Things - Kroeung (Lemongrass Paste) and Sach Ko Ang Jakak (Lemongrass Beef Skewers)
Food is one of the key ways I connect with my Khmer heritage.
But, until I was in my 20s, I had no idea what one of the key ingredients in my tied-for-favorite (the other being cha gio, which I've posted about) party snack was called.
It's called kroeung. It's a paste made with lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and kroeuch sauch leaves**.
**Kroeuch sauch is a variety of lime roughly translating to "laughing citrus", sometimes called by its Thai name, makrut. There is also a k-word in English speaking countries for this variety of lime that I have learned is a racial slur for black Africans, so don't use that name for it.
Many families add red chilis, garlic, shallot, and ginger as well. I personally add all of those, every time.
I don't ever remember seeing my mom prepare it. Which is wild because you'd be hard pressed to find a Khmer home cooking recipe that doesn't include it.
But it was always there in the freezer, bright yellow and frozen into sandwich bags for use during the weeks. I'm sure I witnessed her grinding the ingredients together at some point, and just didn't know what she was doing was critical to feeding us a taste of her home.
Knowing everything about kroeung but the name, just like much of my knowledge of my heritage, was part of the price of my integration into the US. That's a conversation for my Growing Up Cambodian-American in Philly series of posts.
Anyway, the key ingredient of kroeung, itself a key ingredient, is officially lemongrass.
But, in this Khmer guy's mind, the real key ingredient is the lime leaves.
The leaves and rinds smell like jasmine, citrus like grapefruit and lime, and some other floral notes that really can't be substituted.
I liken it to the flavor of lychee and elderflower - there's very few things that you could use outside of that pair to replicate the flavor, it anything. You can say they're "floral" or "unctuous" or "adjacent to vanilla the way root beer is to cola" but all of those comparisons fall flat when put next to a taste or a smell of the real thing.
It's so indispensable that any Khmer family you know probably has a little indoor kroeuch sauch bush (I do, grown from a cutting of my mom's, and then resurrected by said mom when I almost killed it) to harvest whenever they need, because the species doesn't grow naturally anywhere that has a winter, or even a cold autumn.
If that doesn't make it a key ingredient, I dunno what does. Keeping a tropical bush alive indoors, invasive or not, takes real effort.
Side note - in SoCal, where it's warm enough for these tropical citrus bushes to grow into actual trees, I stepped into Cambodia town visiting some relatives and saw this weird looking lime tree in their back yard with double leaves and knobbly limes and realized "wait, this was kroeuch sauch's final form!"
I had never seen one outdoors, and the ones we have potted in the northeast US aren't usually big enough to grow fruit.
But, back to kroeung - it's literally the soul of Khmer food. You haven't had Khmer food if you haven't had something with kroeung in it.
It's used as a base for soups, stews, curries, stir fries. As a marinade for meats, from pork to beef to shrimp. You can make a dip out of kroeung and another one of the OG Khmer key ingredients, prahok (fermented fish paste), and that dip is so Khmer it's rolling dice on a mat with pictures of tigers, crabs, and squash. Don't ask me about that because I barely know anything about the game kla-kloch aside from rolling dice and betting quarters.
Onto this "tied-for-favorite party snack" I mentioned.
That would be sach ko ang jakak (meat cow grill stick), aka grilled beef skewers.
You start with a marinade of kroeung, fish sauce, oyster sauce, a little lime juice or other acid if your meat is on the fatty side, and maybe a little palm sugar - though the fat rendering over smokey charcoal, along with the caramelization of the garlic, shallot, and rhizomes will sweeten it already.
If someone is grilling this, the entire block will smell it. My neighbors knock on my door and shit, they know what's up and I share whenever I make some.
To me, these skewers are family gatherings. They are collective effort, from whoever is doing the paste pounding, to whoever is helping to make the hundreds of skewers, to whoever is washing and picking and chopping the fresh herbs - that was me when I was a kid - to whoever grilled them.
And family gatherings were always centered around the fancy dinner table that we only ever used as a prep station because the only time it was used for eating was when we had guests.
And if you were related to us, and you were in my mom's house, you were not a guest, you were a line chef, a prep cook, or a person who lifts heavy things.
No help, no eat. These things were a lot of work so they only ever come out at our bigger family gatherings, when we can enlist a half dozen cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, or nephews to assist.
But the smell when they're on the grill... that's when you know it was worth it.
No description does it justice. You just have to go to a Khmer spot or make good friends with a Khmer family (bring them some sweet corn or watermelon for the cookout) to get a whiff and a taste of these bad boys.
And when you do it'll sear itself into your memory just like it did mine. Look ma, I made an apt metaphor*!
*I didn't deeply understand what metaphor was until late in my adult life. I'm talking my 20s. How did I get through English Lit at Cornell? By being a very well-trained monkey at a typewriter**
**LOOK! Another metaphor! I'm on a roll! Just like these skewers! That last one, that's a simile, though.
My recipe for kroeung if you want it is:
1 part thinly sliced lemongrass, the tender inner parts of the shoot near the root
1 part galangal, peeled and sliced across the fibrous grain
1 part turmeric, peel if you want, sliced across the fibrous grain
2 kroeuch sauch leaves, destemmed and thinly sliced
1 part ginger, peeled and sliced across the fibrous grain
1/2 part garlic, peeled
1/2 part shallot, roughly chopped
If you want a workout, use a big mortar and pestle that can accommodate twice the volume of how much you're trying to make and pound it all into a paste.
If you're like me, use a food processor, scraping down the sides occasionally, or a high power blender with a couple of tablespoons of water to bring it all together.
Note that you want to pre-slice all the rhizomes so you don't end up with long strands of ginger/galangal/turmeric floss. And generally you only need to peel the turmeric if the skin is particularly thick or papery.
Freeze into quart size ziploc sandwich bags with room to spare, pressing flat and getting all the air out. Then fold the bags into thirds so that it's easy to break off usable portions without having to thaw the whole thing.
My recipe for SACH KO ANG JAKAK (or any other meat, which will be SACH ____ ANG JAKAK)
Thinly slice 3 lbs of beef top round, or chuck, or any other marbled cut (or pork shoulder... it's a new way to do this that I never had growing up and I actually prefer it now) - doesn't need to be super tender to start like ribeye, as the marinade and thin slicing will help tenderize. It's critical that there be enough fat, though, so no super lean cuts.
Note - if you do chicken, do thighs and slice into chunks.
There are recipes out there to do this with tofu that are pretty good - I've had them but never made them, so use some Google Fu or find a Khmer veg/vegan cook who knows what's up.
Mix your marinade in a bowl with roughly 1/2 cup of kroeung, a couple glugs of fish sauce, 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce, a tbsp lime juice if your meat is on the fattier side (white/apple cide/rice vinegar works too), and (optional) a little teaspoon of palm sugar to round things out - though when the fat absorbs smokey charcoal flavor and the garlic, shallot, and rhizomes caramelize, that already sweetens the meat a good bit to begin with.
Thoroughly fold all the thinly sliced meat in the marinade. Make sure nothing is untouched by your marinade.
Store in the fridge at least 3 hours, overnight is best.
Put the meat onto bamboo skewers, in the density that you can see in the pics above. Too tight and you won't get even charring or cooking. Too loose and you will overcook everything.
Fire up your grill. Gas is okay. Charcoal is best.
Grill with a spritz bottle filled with water handy. These will cook fast, going to burnt shit within 30 seconds of hitting perfect. The spray bottle helps with flareups, as the marinade and rendered fat hitting the hot coals or gas will char the meat TOO much. A few spritzes save the day.
Enjoy them while they're hot! But if you have to reheat them, I find the best way is actually in a covered pot on the stove with a little bit of water for steam. Microwave isn't awful, but you didn't put in all this work for meh.