Spicy, sweet, creamy, coconutty – these archetypal flavours define “curry” for billions.
But in the southern Cambodian countryside, curries can be different; in fact, “tart,” “tangy,” and “zesty” are often the more apt descriptors.
In the recipe below, we’ll introduce you to one such curry: a simple farmer’s dish and a favourite in Thida’s village.
Ready to expand your curry horizons? Read on!
Sour Beef Curry – Essentials
Although most of the ingredients for this sour curry are readily available in supermarkets, there are a few things you’ll have to consider before you don your apron.
Get the Tang Right
Tartness is the defining flavour in this beef curry, and there are several ways you can achieve it.
Traditionally, this dish is made with river leaf creeper (aka La Giang), which grows in abundance throughout Southeast Asia. If you’re lucky, you may find it in an Asian supermarket — checking out one of the many grocery delivery services is an easy way to start your search.
However, the plant is a rarity outside its natural habitat, so, more likely than not, you’ll have to use one of the alternatives.
Fortunately, there are more options for introducing tanginess to this curry.
Thida’s favourite is tamarind. Not only does it produce a similar refreshing sour flavour as la giang, but it’s also a native species in Cambodia, meaning there are no compromises with authenticity if you opt for this alternative!
You won’t need to search long to find sour tamarind, either – the little packages with its paste (with seeds and without) can be found on the shelves of any larger supermarket.
Alternatives to La Giang and Tamarind
If finding tamarind is a challenge, you can always choose lime juice or even white vinegar. Since both of these alternatives deliver a sharper tartness than tamarind or la giang, you should consider adding a bit of sugar to the curry to balance out the acidity. We’ll have additional information on this in the “recipe” section.
Choose the Meat
If you’ve ever travelled through Southeast Asia, you’re sure to have seen the ubiquitous Brahman cows grazing languidly throughout the countryside. And you’ve probably noticed that these poor bovines are typically emaciated; as a consequence, the beef that a Cambodian farmer would use to cook this curry would be quite lean. To give such lean meat a tender quality and reduce its chewiness, it’s typically cooked longer.
Of course, if you have the option to use a juicier (and pricier) cut, such as a tenderloin, go ahead. But in a curry, this is really unnecessary. You can still use a tough cut – or simply buy a package of stewing beef. Just keep in mind that you’ll want to cook lean meat longer to make it tender. The last thing you want are chunks of chewy, rubbery beef getting stuck in your teeth.
Make It Hot
In most Cambodian recipes, heat comes from the good old chilli pepper.
But the intensity of heat depends not only on the quantity of chilly you add to the dish: The colour plays a role, too.
Dying to set your mouth on fire with reckless abandon? Go for the reddest peppers you can find, and throw in as many as you’ll tolerate.
Otherwise, use greener chillies for a milder, but still fragrant and spicy curry.
Pick Your Side Dish
You can eat this beef curry either over rice, as you would with any Thai curry. Or, if you want a more genuine Cambodian experience, ditch the rice and go for a baguette instead. A remnant of French Indochina, the crispy white baguette is still a favourite in Khmer households when a sour beef curry is on the table.
Cambodian Sour Beef Curry
- 2 oz sweet chili pepper
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1 can coconut milk
- 5 lime tree leaves
- 1" knob galangal (ginger will do if galangal is not available)
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp white sugar (brown sugar works, too)
- 1 tsp MSG
- 1" knob turmeric root
- 2 tbsp sour tamarind paste, seedless
- 1 cup water
- 1 lbs stewing beef
- hot chilli pepper – to taste
- coarse salt – to taste (use fish sauce if you're feeling adventurous)
- Soak sweet chilli peppers for 30 minutes, then mince them into a paste.
- Finely cut lemongrass, lime tree leaf, turmeric root, galangal, and place into the mortar, along with garlic and hot chilli pepper.
- In the mortar, use the pestle to crush the above into a paste.
- Dice the beef into small, half-inch (1.25 cm) cubes.
- Pour the coconut milk into a pot (we use a 5-quart pot for this recipe) and heat until boiling over medium heat.
- Add the sweet chilli and lemongrass pastes to the boiling coconut milk and mix well.
- Throw in the beef and mix well.
- Once the mix boils again, add the seasonings – salt, MSG, and sugar.
- Add water to the pot, mix well, and bring to a boil.
- Switch to low heat and allow the curry to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. For softer beef, you can keep the curry simmering longer.
- Serve over rice, with a French baguette, or any other white bread.