Why It Works
- A combination of fresh bay leaves, lemongrass, lemon and lime zests, and other aromatics recreate the flavor of much harder-to-find ingredients.
- A mortar and pestle produces a paste with the most robust flavor.
For any student of the cuisines of the world, words like mirepoix, soffritto, and Holy Trinity are well known—they all describe the aromatic flavor bases of French, Italian, and Cajun cooking, respectively. But I'm going to go out on a limb and wager that for most well-versed cooks, the word kroueng still doesn't mean all that much. So what is it? Kroueng is the name of a wide variety of aromatic flavor bases used in Khmer cooking, which I'm familiar with through my mother-in-law, who is Chinese-Cambodian.
Of all the dishes she makes, one of my favorites is sach ko jakak, which simply means "beef stick." But oh, it is way more than just a beef stick, and what makes it so special is the kroueng she makes to flavor it. Her recipe uses a pounded mixture of makrut lime leaves, turmeric, galangal, and lemongrass. Whenever there's a family barbecue, this dish is my number-one request.
When I was trying to recreate my mother-in-law's kroueng recipe to share with you all, the main thing I wanted to figure out was how to make a version that tasted right, but didn't rely on a lot of hard-to-find ingredients. Living in Philadelphia, I can track down most of the things required, though even I run into trouble with some of them, like the fresh lime leaves and fresh turmeric. In smaller cities and towns, finding them can be next to impossible. The question was: What could I use in place of those more obscure ingredients that would capture the flavor of the original dish?
I started off by thinking of the way all those aromatics combine to create an overall flavor, which can be hard to pinpoint. Lemongrass and makrut lime leaves bring a hint of bright citrus flavor, fresh galangal (which is part of the ginger family) adds a pungent, earthy fresh ginger taste, and turmeric root adds a mild bitterness.
Replacing one ingredient with another can be tricky: Substituting dried herbs for fresh ones doesn't always work, for example. Often, the trick to capturing the flavor of one ingredient involves combining several others. Of course a perfect facsimile is next to impossible, but I'm pretty happy with what I've come up with here. More importantly, my mother-in-law is, too.
To make my version of the paste, I combine chopped fresh lemongrass and bay leaves, thyme, lemon zest, lime zest, ginger, and crushed garlic in a mortar and pestle—the best way to release the aromatic flavors of the ingredients, though of course a food processor will work if that's all you have. I pound everything together, crushing it into smaller and smaller pieces until a coarse paste forms.
Next, I add turmeric powder, lemon juice, salt, sugar, and cinnamon, then pound again until everything is mixed together.
You can make the paste up to a few days ahead, and then all that's left to do is slice the beef, rub it with the paste, and slide it onto skewers. I use sirloin or flank steak that I've sliced into strips about 1/8 inch thick. They don't take long to cook over direct heat on the grill, only two to three minutes on each side.
They're best served hot, maybe with a side of cabbage salad tossed in a spicy fish sauce-and-lime dressing.
4 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass from tender inner core of 2-4 stalks
3 fresh bay leaves, fibrous string removed from each leaf and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lime zest
2 teaspoons diced fresh peeled ginger
8 medium garlic cloves, crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh juice from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pound beef sirloin or flank steak, sliced into 1/8-inch thick strips
2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
In a mortar and pestle or mini food processor, combine lemongrass, bay leaves, thyme, lemon zest, lime zest, ginger, and garlic and pound until well crushed and a coarse paste forms. Add turmeric, lemon juice, salt, sugar, and cinnamon. Pound again, mix well, and set the paste aside. The paste can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days.
Place beef in a mixing bowl and toss with fish sauce and oil. Stir in aromatic paste until beef is evenly coated. Thread beef strips onto bamboo skewers and set aside until ready to grill.
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread coals evenly over half of the charcoal grate. Alternatively, set all the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Grill beef skewers over direct heat until cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Serve right away.
Grill, mortar and pestle or a small food processor, bamboo skewers (soaked at least 2 hours or overnight)
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 2g||3%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||4%|
|Total Carbohydrate 3g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||6%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|