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 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 makrut 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.
Cambodian Coconut Shrimp Soup
- For the lemongrass paste
- 3 stalks lemongrass (or the zest of 1 lime and 1 lemon, plus additional lime juice to taste)
- 1 (3-inch) piece fresh turmeric (or substitute 1 tablespoon ground turmeric)
- 1 (3-inch) piece fresh ginger
- 1 shallot
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 makrut lime leaves, finely sliced (optional)
- For the soup:
- 1 can (14-ounce) full-fat coconut milk, do not shake
- 2 1/2 cups flavorful stock (fish, chicken, or vegetable)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce, such as Red Boat, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 3 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 8 ounces French green beans (haricots verts), trimmed and halved
- 1 1/2 cups (9 ounces) cherry tomatoes, halved
- Salt, to taste
- 2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 large handful Thai basil leaves
- To serve:
- Cooked rice
- Lime wedges
Make the lemon grass paste:
Peel away and discard the top outer layer of tough, fibrous leaves from the lemongrass, leaving the tender, lighter-colored inside layers. Cut this tender part into thin slices. Also peel and slice the turmeric, ginger, shallot, and garlic cloves.
Combine the lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, shallot, garlic, and lime leaves in a blender or food processor and process until the ingredients are finely chopped. Scrape down the sides of the blender as necessary. Set the paste aside.
This paste can be prepared in advance and kept refrigerated for up to a week.
Separate the coconut cream from the milk:
Do not shake the can of coconut milk. Open the top, and you should see a thick layer of coconut cream on top. Spoon this out of the can and transfer to a stock pot. Reserve the watery milk on the bottom.
If you don't see a clear layer of cream on top, then just add all the coconut milk at once.
Cook the coconut cream and lemongrass paste:
Over medium-high heat, bring the coconut cream to a simmer. Add the lemongrass paste and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and fragrant.
Add the remaining coconut milk from the can, the stock, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer.
Cook the vegetables and shrimp:
Add the zucchini and green beans to soup. Simmer for about 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are just barely tender.
Add the shrimp and the tomatoes, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until pink and opaque. Stir in the basil leaves. Taste the soup and add additional salt, fish sauce, or brown sugar to taste.
Ladle into bowls, and serve with rice and lime wedges. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for about 5 days.