Asked to describe Cambodian food chef Nadsa de Monteiro says, “Most people have had Thai food. [I’ll say] ‘Have you had Thai food? Well, it has similar roots but it’s a whole lot better. It’s a lot more complex. It’s more earthy, it’s more interesting.”
Ingredients such as fermented fish paste and fermented shrimp paste are used sparingly but give complexity and depth to many dishes.
De Monteiro offers two recipes for the curious cook. One is a recipe that diners clamor for every summer: a cold avocado citrus soup, inspired by her visit to Ecuador years ago. Fresh lime and orange juice go into the soup, giving it a clean taste.
Another is the classic Cambodian rice and chicken dish, called “bai mouan.” “What is more comforting than chicken and rice?” De Monteiro asked.
It’s a simple comforting dish, but it’s addictive. The secret is the sauce—”Kampot tuk trey,” a concoction of lime juice, fish sauce, and chilies. “Everybody that’s had it loves it,” said De Monteiro. The other is the garlicky rice. The chicken is traditionally boiled, although De Monteiro is serving it roasted in the summer.
Only the fluffy garlicky rice is served to diners at the restaurant, but if you’re at home, don’t discard the crusty rice at the bottom of the pan—that’s considered the best part.
Classic Cambodian Chicken and Rice
Makes 8 servings
Cooking the chickens, making the broth and the rice :
6 quarts of water
1 large peeled whole onion
2 whole chickens ( about 3 1/2 lbs each )
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
8 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
4 cups of jasmine rice, soaked and drained
2 teaspoons of kosher salt and ground black pepper mix
Dipping sauce :
Juice and pulp of 2 1/2 limes
8 garlic cloves, ground to a paste with a mortar and pestle or mini chop
3 to 6 bird’s eye chilies to taste, finely chopped (mix of red & green chilies if possible)
1/2 cup fish sauce
3 Tablespoons of sugar
Serve garnished with :
1 small onion, sliced paper thin crosswise
2 Tablespoons of preserved cabbage (optional )
1 large English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 small head of bib lettuce, separated, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
2 scallions, sliced diagonally 1/4 inch thick
1/4 bunch of fresh cilantro sprigs, washed and drained for garnish
In a large stockpot add the 2 chickens, fill with cold water to cover the chicken only by an inch.
Add 1 whole peeled onion to the pot and bring to a boil; turn down to simmer and skim off any scum. Simmer covered for about 1 hour or until chickens are tender but not overcooked and mushy.
Remove the chickens from the broth and store tightly covered until serving time; reserve broth
In a large-rimmed pot, heat the oil and saute the garlic over medium heat until lightly golden but not burned, 5 to 8 seconds.
Add the soaked and drained rice and stir to mix well; toast the rice while stirring often until the grains become mostly opaque, about 5 minutes, without breaking the rice grains; season with salt & black pepper; mix well.
Add 6 1/2 cups of the chicken broth to the toasted rice and stir to mix well and spread rice evenly to cook in the broth.
Bring to a boil and immediately lower the heat to a minimum, cover and let the rice cook
by absorption for about 20-25 minutes, or until broth is completely absorbed and the rice is tender.
Make the dipping sauce by combining all the ingredients and mix well. Set aside.
Shred the chicken into bite sized pieces and arrange on a platter with the rice, cucumber, lettuce,
scallion and cilantro.
Serve this chicken and rice dish accompanied by individual bowls of piping hot chicken broth garnished with thinly sliced onion and preserved cabbage, and small individual bowls of dipping sauce on the side.
Chilled Avocado Citrus Soup
Makes 4 servings
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon regular salt
1 quart orange juice, freshly squeezed
1 cup lime, freshly squeezed
1 tablespoon, sugar
2 teaspoons regular salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or soybean oil
3 avocados, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2/3 cup button mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 cups plum tomatoes, diced without pulp
Cilantro, chopped, 1 tablespoon per serving
Cover the chopped onion with salt for 20 to 30 minutes.
Rinse the salt completely off the onion, drain and squeeze off excess water.
Mix salt, black pepper, orange juice, lime juice, garlic, and sugar. Stir well to mix.
Add olive oil and mix well. Add the diced avocado, mushroom, tomatoes, and onion.
Stir gently now to mix well.
Let chill for 1 hour before serving.
When serving, add a tablespoon of chopped cilantro to soup and stir to mix.
(Recipe courtesy of executive chef Nadsa de Monteiro, The Elephant Walk, Boston and Cambridge, Mass.)