Why It Works
- Cooking the paste before adding the other ingredients concentrates flavor and pulls out the oils in the aromatics.
- Adding holy basil or Thai basil to the otherwise pungently flavored dish brings needed freshness and balance.
- Cooking the stir-fry in two batches ensures the wok remains hot enough for the chicken to sear and prevents the steaming that can occur if a pan is overcrowded.
- The jalapeños are incorporated right before the dish is pulled from the heat, leaving them crisp and bright.
If you're hoping to familiarize yourself with the mouthwateringly delicious foods of Cambodia, look no further than cha kreung satch moan. This chicken stir-fry, adapted from a recipe from Chinchakriya Un and her mother, is salty, sweet, pungent, and slightly spicy, balanced by the herbal, cooling flavor of holy basil.
The most important—and time-consuming—component of the dish is the kreung, a paste made of pounded herbs and other aromatics. There are countless kreungs used in Cambodian cooking, calling on different mixtures of ingredients. This particular one is flavored with a fragrant combination of lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, and plenty of makrut lime leaves. The resulting paste colors the chicken a brilliant yellow and yields a powerfully flavorful dish that's ready in less than 30 minutes.
- For the Kreung:
- 3 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, sliced into thin rounds (65g once sliced)
- One 3-inch knob galangal, peeled and sliced into thin rounds (35g once sliced)
- Two 4-inch knobs fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced into thin rounds (25g once sliced)
- 12 makrut lime leaves, preferably fresh, sliced very thinly crosswise
- 1 small shallot, peeled and sliced into thin rounds (25g once sliced)
- 5 medium cloves garlic, peeled (25g)
- 1/2 cup holy basil leaves, very tightly packed (12g; see note) or Thai basil leaves (25g)
- For the Stir-Fry:
- 1/2 cup (120ml) vegetable oil, divided
- 2 pounds (900g) boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 3 breast halves), cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices, divided
- One 3-inch piece fermented mudfish (35g), cut in half, divided (optional; see note)
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) Asian fish sauce, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
- 1/2 cube (6g) chicken bouillon, such as Knorr, crumbled to a powdery consistency, divided
- 1 cup holy basil leaves, very tightly packed (40g), divided
- 4 jalapeños (150g), stemmed, halved, and seeded, then cut on a bias into 3/4-inch strips, divided
- Kosher salt
- For Serving:
- Steamed white rice
For the Kreung: Using a large granite mortar and pestle, combine lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and makrut lime leaves and grind to a smooth but slightly fibrous paste. These are the toughest, most fibrous ingredients in the paste, so it will take 5 to 10 minutes for the paste to form. Once the paste has formed, add shallot and garlic and pound again to smash them into the paste, another 3 to 5 minutes longer. Add basil to the mortar and pound until it is fully incorporated into the paste.
For the Stir-Fry: In a wok, heat 1/4 cup (60ml) vegetable oil over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add roughly half of the kreung to the wok, stirring and scraping constantly with a wooden spatula to prevent the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. At first, the paste will snap and pop as it begins to release moisture. Continue stirring until all visible moisture has cooked off and the paste has thickened and darkened slightly, 1 to 2 minutes.
Increase heat to high, then add half of the chicken to the wok, along with 1 piece of mudfish (if using) and cook, stirring, until chicken is coated in the kreung and has turned white on the surface, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in half of fish sauce, sugar, and bouillon and scrape browned bits from the bottom of the wok (some may still adhere). Stir in half the basil. Once basil has wilted, reduce heat to low and add half of jalapeño slices, cooking until warmed through but still crisp. Season with salt to taste.
Scrape contents of wok into a serving bowl and discard fermented fish. Rinse and dry wok, then repeat with remaining oil, kreung, chicken, and other ingredients.
Serve stir-fry right away, passing steamed white rice at the table.
Granite mortar and pestle, wok
Fermented mudfish, called prahok when smashed into a paste, is an extremely fragrant and pungent ingredient, used as a source of salt and flavor in all sorts of Cambodian dishes. My local Thai grocery was sold out of prahok, so I bought the whole small fish instead. If you find the pre-processed prahok paste instead of the whole-fish version, start with 1 teaspoon and adjust your other sources of salt accordingly. In New York, Bangkok Center Grocery usually carries several forms of fermented fish paste, along with the whole fish. Otherwise, you can purchase prahok paste online.
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, delivers a menthol-like tingling and cooling sensation, along with a slightly bitter earthiness. It's a great balancing flavor for the pungency of this dish, but it can be hard to find. Search local Thai or Cambodian grocery stores for it, if you have any in your area. If you can't get your hands on holy basil, substitute an equal volume of Thai basil. Thai basil contains more moisture, so expect to cook the kreung slightly longer, until the excess moisture has cooked off.