Lime juice enlivens many dishes, adding an effervescent sparkle. Cambodians have learned how to intensify the citrus’s flavor, amplifying it far beyond the supporting role it usually plays. Much as Cambodia itself exerts a subtle, yet identifiable, cultural influence that exceeds its relatively modest size.
Today’s entry, Eggplant with Pork and Shrimp, does precisely that, giving the little fruit big taste beyond what it usually enjoys. When the idea appeared on the Genius Kitchen website, there was little hint of the outsized flavors the dish would bring. It leads to a wonderful surprise for the taste buds.
This is thanks to the Spicy Lime Sauce, pictured in the quartz bowl at the upper-left in the photo above. It starts with lime juice, of course, though liquified garlic and hot peppers lend a piquancy and bite. Additionally, a dose of fish sauce contributes a briny savor that plays well with the shrimp. Finally, sugar (in our case, palm sugar) rounds out the taste profile, giving it a smooth finish.
These combine to elevate the normally somewhat-subdued pork, shrimp and eggplant. The exuberant freshness sparks them to liveliness. Quite a feat for what probably isn’t even a full cup of liquid.
Lime has a presence, to varying degrees, in most of the world’s cuisines. In many of them, it’s a prominent one; this is especially true of South Asian cooking, in which the Cambodian kitchen has considerable influence. Both here and elsewhere. Today Cambodians use their skills to coax the lime to sing with an unprecedented clarity and brilliance.
Cambodian Eggplant with Pork and Shrimp
- 1 medium eggplant
- 1 tablespoon oil (*1)
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1/2 cup ground pork
- 1 chili, seeds and ribs removed, and minced
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon mild chili powder (*2)
- 1 tablespoon sugar (*3)
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup raw shrimp, peeled and chopped (*4)
- salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons Spicy Lime Sauce (instructions below)
For the Spicy Lime Sauce:
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 or 2 chilis, seeds and ribs removed
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- juice of one lime
- 2 tablespoons sugar (*3)
- shredded carrot, for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Puncture eggplant in a few places with a fork. Bake on a sheet for about 15 minutes. After the eggplant has cooled enough to handle, peel it and cut it, lengthwise, into 1-inch strips. Set it aside.
To make the Spicy Lime Sauce, put the water, chili(s) and garlic in a food processor and blend until liquified. (*5) In a small bowl mix together the lime juice, fish sauce and the sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, then stir in the chili water you made. Reserve two tablespoons of the sauce for the stir fry and garnish the rest with shredded carrots.
Heat oil in a wok set over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook it, stirring frequently, until it’s lightly browned. Add the pork, chili, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili powder and sugar. Cook, stirring constantly while breaking up the meat, until the pork just loses its pink color.
Add the stock and the water and bring to a boil. Add the lime sauce, shrimp, and eggplant and cook just until the shrimp no longer is opaque. Season with salt and pepper.
Lay out the eggplant on a platter and top it with the pork mixture. Garnish with coriander and sliced scallions and serve.
1 – In common with most Southeast Asian dishes, I chose peanut oil. Even when the dish doesn’t use peanuts, the taste works quite well with pork.
2 – Smoked paprika works best , because… In Cambodia, the eggplant often is roasted over a fire, instead of being cooked in an oven, as is done elsewhere. The flame imparts a char and smokiness the oven doesn’t, and it gives the eggplant an identifiable taste. There are two ways to accomplish this, though, short of finding an open fire.
One is to cook the eggplant on a grill, and the other, easier, route is to use smoked paprika as your “mild chili powder.”
3 – Granulated sugar is fine, and is likely what the recipe intends. However, brown sugar is closer to the palm sugar that would be used in Cambodia. Best of all, if you can get it, use palm sugar for both the stir-fry and for the lime sauce.
4 – As the recipe doesn’t specify how fine a chop should be used, something a bit coarser than pea-sized works best. This keeps the shrimp manageable while maintaining its identity.
5 – Moreover, I strained the water through a fine mesh before adding it to the other ingredients. This maintains the chili water’s flavor contribution, while keeping the sauce smooth.