Friday, 18 May 2012

Cambodia - How I became a Lotus Eater

I always really look forward to cooking a typical dish of the different places I blog about and Cambodia was no exception.  I know a lot about Thai food, having lived there, but Khmer cuisine is pretty unknown to me, although a lot of the ingredients and cooking techniques are the same.

There were quite a few dishes to choose from, but I liked the sound of Somla Machou which is a sour-tasting fish soup.  Actually, the recipe I used from included some sugar, so the overall taste was sweet, as well as sour.  The part that gives the sour taste to Somla Machou is the Lotus root.  I'd never eaten Lotus root before, never mind cooked it, so that was a new experience for me!

In search of Lotus root

Wing Yip's Chinese superstore, Cricklewood
Rich in dietary fibre and Vitamin C, but also low in saturated fat, the root of the Lotus flower is quite a healthy thing to eat.  It's common enough in East Asian cuisine, but not very well known in the West, which is a shame, as it's actually quite tasty and easy to cook.  I wasn't quite sure where I would find Lotus root in London, but a quick search of the Internet brought me to Wing Yip's Chinese superstore in Cricklewood.  I not only found Lotus root there, but also fresh galangal, which I've not seen in Europe before.  Although Wing Yip's has a comprehensive stock of Chinese ingredients, ironically I had to get some of the other ingredients (eg. lemongrass and pineapple) in Tesco's! 

The ingredients:

The Ingredients
About 700ml of Chicken stock
Two fillets of white fish - I used Panga from Vietnam which I bought frozen in Wing Yip's
Two tomatoes
One Lotus root tuber (about 150g)
Birdseye chillies
Galangal (fresh, if you can get it!)
A whole bulb of garlic
1 egg
Lemongrass (preferably fresh, but I used dried lemongrass)
80g Tamarind pulp
Groundnut oil (for frying the garlic)
Thai Holy Basil (although I couldn't get my hands on this, so used dried basil)
Fresh mint
2 tablespoons of Brown sugar
Half a pineapple
Thai fish sauce (Nam pla - Cambodians have their own version of this, called tuk trey, if you can find it!)
Rice (as a side)


I always prepare everything first, so it's ready to be cooked and I'm not chopping things up in a hurry, whilst my dinner is burning!  Preparing the lotus root was easy - it's just like a potato really - you peel the outer skin off and slice it in rounds.  I also read somewhere that it's best to put the lotus root into a container with water until you're ready to cook it, so it doesn't get discoloured. 

Peel and slice the Lotus root

Put the sliced Lotus root ina bowl of water
I prepared all of the other ingredients, including the Tamarind pulp, which I mixed with boiling hot water, let it settle for about ten minutes and then poured the mixture into a sieve, retaining the tamarind juice, but discarding the tough, chewy husks. 

Vegetables and spices, chopped and prepared

Also chop the fish into bite-sized chunks

How I made Somla Machou

I followed the recipe from Celtnet quite closely.  First I put the lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar and galangal into a large pot and boiled them with the chicken stock.  Then I added the tomato, pineapple and lotus root, bringing everything to a boil again, before reducing the heat and simmering the vegetables for about ten minutes.

Stock, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce and sugar

Add the pineapple, tomato and lotus root

After the vegetables had cooked, I added the tamarind juice and pieces of Panga (fish).  Whilst the fish pieces were cooking, I used a separate, smaller, pan to fry the chopped up garlic until it turned golden brown.

Cook the fish pieces

Brown the garlic

Once the fish pieces had cooked, I added dried basil, mint and the fried garlic.  I understand completely why the garlic needs to be fried separately, as just adding the garlic pieces to the soup at this point wouldn't have the same taste.  The final thing was to add the egg and stir it into the soup as it cooked.  I've seen this done before, but not actually done it myself and it's a technique that is often used in Chinese cooking. 

Add the herbs and garlic

Stir in an egg

Finally, I served the soup with basmati rice and sprinkled with birdseye chillies  The end result was very tasty indeed!

Somla Machou served with rice

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