Earlier last year, I had the good fortune to travel to Cambodia to visit a friend who lives there. I had a long stay, so had plenty of time to explore Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas – and eat lots of food!
Most people in Phnom Penh buy their food from the markets. I saw both live and freshly killed chickens, fish that were still wriggling, a very pungent fermented fish called prahok, and baskets piled high with all kinds of fresh produce like lemongrass, makrut (kaffir) lime leaves, baby (pea) eggplant, banana flowers, morning glory, and water spinach.
It was all so colorful, chaotic, mesmerizing, loud, and messy! Luckily, I was able to get a cooking lesson from a chef in Phnom Penh who helped me learn more about all the ingredients I saw in the market and taught me some of the basics of Cambodian cooking.
I have adapted this recipe for Coconut Shrimp Stew to some degree since obtaining all the ingredients that I learned to cook with in Phnom Penh proved tricky here in the States. However, I’ve left two traditional ingredients in the recipe: lemongrass and fresh turmeric.
You can often find both of these ingredients in the produce section of a well-stocked natural foods store or an Asian market. Lemongrass looks like a long, thick shoot and turmeric looks like a smaller, more orange-hued version of ginger. If you can’t find them, substitute the zest of one lime and one lemon, plus additional lime juice to taste, for the lemongrass and substitute ground turmeric for the fresh turmeric.
Also keep an eye out for kaffir lime leaves, which you might find near the lemongrass and turmeric. These are optional for this recipe and add a bright fragrance to the soup, but the recipe will be just as delicious without them.
This stew makes a quick weeknight supper, especially if you are using shrimp that has already been peeled and deveined. You’re best off buying frozen shrimp labeled IQF, or Individually Quick Frozen. (The “fresh” shrimp in the seafood case has usually been previously frozen, thawed, and has now been in the case for an indeterminate amount of time.) Frozen shrimp can be quickly thawed in a bowl of cool water.
In my time in Cambodia, I found that Cambodian cuisine resembles Thai cuisine in many ways, but it is more subtle and not quite as spicy-hot. This stew is a perfect example of the food from this region.
So take a trip! See the world! Or at the very least, taste it in this delicious shrimp stew.