Centuries before the outside world discovered chili peppers, traders devoted considerable time to bringing home peppercorns from Southeast Asia. The journey was as arduous as it was lengthy, leading peppercorns, prized for their flavor and rarity, to be valued more than gold. No matter whether peppercorns were loaded aboard a ship or transported by caravan across the length of Asia, it took years for the dried berries to reach the market.
Indeed, this was the beginning of the famous Spice Road, as peppercorns made their way from the tropics, and across deserts, mountains and bandit-infested plains to reach the Near East and Europe. Worth more than treasure in the markets, these spices were equally valued in their native region. In fact, today’s entry, White Pepper Coconut-Curry Chicken, is a variation on Amok, Cambodia’s national dish, and is featured in the July-August 2109 Milk Street.
Ages prior to peppers being introduced to their kitchens, Cambodians and other Southeast Asians were using peppercorns to give their dishes a heated zing. Unlike peppers, though, which provide unrelenting heat, peppercorns release bursts of flavor when chewed, then they revert to background music. As such, today’s spice joins a chorus of flavors providing a vibrant range of tastes, from ginger’s sweet fire to lemongrass’s and limes’ fruity tang. All swims in a calming, creamy sea of coconut milk.
As are most curries, especially those originating in the East, this is served over rice. Not just any rice, though, but the region’s “Forbidden Rice,” so named because it once was reserved for the royal court. More than just its black (actually, deep purple) shade, the rice’s floral tone sets it apart. One of you expressed an interest in seeing black rice, and after many, many months, here it is.
In fact, it’s an interlude reminiscent of the time it once took peppercorns to reach grateful buyers. Maybe the spice nowadays requires a journey no more daunting than a trip to the local market, but the end result is as fully satisfying as it was when peppercorns took years to make their way from the jungle, through the brigand-plagued desert, and to the spice basket.
Cambodian White Pepper Coconut-Curry Chicken
- 3 tablespoons white peppercorns
- 1 and 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- salt, to taste
- 1/2 cup grapeseed oil, or other neutral oil (*1)
- 6 garlic cloves, skinned and smashed
- 2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed, tough outer layers removed, and sliced thinly
- 2 teaspoons grated lime zest (*2)
- 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 pound eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 13-ounce can of coconut milk
- 1 pound- sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (*3)
- cilantro leaves, coarsely torn, for garnish
Use a mortar and pestle to smash the peppercorns. Crush just enough to break them into pieces, but don’t pulverize them. Point is, you want them to have considerable texture.
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken with 1 tablespoon of the pepper and 2 tablespoons of the salt. Toss to coat and set aside.
Set a wok over a medium flame and pour in the oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the remaining peppercorns. Stir frequently until the peppercorns are sizzling and fragrant, about three minutes. Carefully pour into a small bowl and set aside for a few minutes. Turn off the flame.
In a food processor, add the garlic, lemongrass, ginger, lime zest, turmeric and the oil-peppercorn mixture. Process until finely chopped, about a minute.
Turn the flame under the wok back to medium and pour in the food processor contents. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is strongly aromatic, about 4 minutes.
Add the eggplant, sugar and fish sauce and cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant begins to release some of its moisture, about 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, stirring to scrape the bottom of the wok. Bring to a simmer.
Stir in the chicken and sweet potato. Cover, reduce flame to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 35 minutes. Season with salt, serve over rice and garnish with cilantro leaves.
1 – Or, try peanut oil, which is a better fit for Southeast Asian cooking.
2 – This is one lime’s-worth. Fully zested, of course.
3 – Peeled…or not. As long a you wash the sweet potatoes first, leaving the skin on is fine. It’s thin and, in flavor and in texture, is indistinguishable from the potato beneath. Most important, retaining the skin adds a flash of color, an important factor in a chicken and coconut milk-based dish.