It’s All in the Sauce

When Cambodians make Chicken Samlá Curry they put everything into the soupy basting sauce – lemongrass, ginger, lime zest, garlic, coconut milk…everything.  Even the chicken itself luxuriates in the impossibly fragrant mixtures, absorbing all manner of wonderful tastes.

One thing this “curry” doesn’t have, though, is curry itself.  The name is assigned to any number of Asian dishes that simmer in a thick sauce, including this one, though the namesake spice blend isn’t always present.   Today’s preparation more than makes up for the absence by maximizing a wonderfully aromatic selection of herbs and spices.

It was the promise of sublime intensity that recommended the recipe when MyRecipes featured instructions on its site. Just preparing the ingredients for cooking was enough to send one to realms beyond.  Then, when the aromatics were whirled together in a food processor (traditionally, they would have been pulverized with a mortar and pestle), it was nearly too much to bear.

Once the sauce is assembled the chicken is added and begins cooking, imparting its essence, but much more brilliantly, taking in a full rapture of flavors.  It simmers in this magically intense concoction for 45 minutes, becoming one with the sauce:Wok with Lid

The process involves covering the wok as the bird simmers, which is thrilling just by itself, as this the first time in years (perhaps ever!) the lid has been used.

After the chicken is ready, it’s removed and is cut from the bone, and is broadly chopped.  Returned to the sauce along with  some lime juice, the whole team simmers together for a few minutes more before being ladled onto grateful rice.  Never before has plan white rice been changed so instantly and dramatically.

It’s that sauce – pure gold.  Not only golden in hue due to the turmeric and the chicken juices, but sparkling with bright freshness from all that’s in it.  If one dish hits all of Cambodia’s high notes, this is it.


Chicken Samlá Curry

For the sauce:

  • 1/2 cup thinly-sliced ginger
  • 1/4 cup chopped lemongrass, tough outer layer first removed
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons shrimp sauce (*1)
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon grated lime rind
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
  • 2 large shallots, peeled and quartered

For cooking:

  • cooking spray (*2)
  • 6 chicken drumsticks, skinned
  • 6 chicken thighs, skinned
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (*3)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Place all the sauce ingredients in a food processor.  Process until minced. scraping the sides occasionally.

Place a wok over medium-high flame, then coat the surface with oil.  Add sauce mixture and stir-fry for two minutes.  Add the chicken and cook for two minutes on each side.  Add broth, coconut milk and sugar, stirring to loosen any baked-on bits.  Bring mixture to a boil, cover and reduce heat.  Let simmer for 45 minutes.

Turn off the flame beneath the wok and remove the chicken to a cutting board, leaving the basting sauce in the wok.  Once chicken has cooled enough to handle, cut the meat from the bones and chop it broadly.  Discard the bones.

Turn to medium the flame beneath the wok.  Return the chopped chicken to the basting sauce and add the lime juice.  Cook for two minutes, stirring frequently.  Serve over rice, and accompanied wit lime wedges if desired.


1 – I couldn’t find shrimp sauce at the supermarket and I didn’t have time to order it online.   Due the small quantity required, I substituted 3/4 tablespoon each of fish and oyster sauces.

2 – Instead, I used half a tablespoon of peanut oil, swirling it to coat the wok.  This imparted a better taste than would have cooking spray.

3 – Of course, I used palm sugar, as it was in the fridge and it’s truer to the original cooked in Cambodia.  Granulated or brown sugar works too.


25 thoughts on “It’s All in the Sauce

    1. Thanks a bunch, Mia!

      Astute observation! While the basic ingredients are solid, they’re just that…basic.

      A sauce sets everything to the same tune allows the ingredients not just to exist, but it inspires them to sing. Any animal can devour an unadorned ingredient, yet our culinary ingenuity gives it, as you observed, soul. Heart and soul, as it were.

      Great eye for the nuances, Mia!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That is quite an abundance of ginger, lemongrass, and garlic. I can imagine how wonderfully fragrant that is while it cooks! I bet it would be a great sauce with fish as well.

    I’m not sure I’ve come across shrimp sauce. Is it thin like fish sauce or thick like oyster sauce? I have some shrimp powder that I might have tried to substitute. (Maybe after mixing with water?)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Actually, calling it “sauce” is a bit misleading, as it’s more of a paste. It’s quite strong, which the other beautifully aromatic ingredients cover, but why compromise? After all, you want the others to sing, not to waste their effort compensating before they even get on stage.

      For that reason, I’d suggest using a similar quantity of oyster sauce. Thanks so much for your interest, Summer – happy discovering!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So I happened to be in one of my favorite international markets today, and I noticed that they sell two items in glass jars both labeled “shrimp sauce.” One was gray (think uncooked shrimp) while the other had a bit of an orange hue. Both definitely appeared more paste-like than saucy! Do you have any thoughts on which is a better choice?

        It was so funny that I happened upon these because I was actually trying to find something else. I ended up having to Google what the jars of different brand of broad bean paste might look like because none of the jars wore labels in English. Fortunately, I found a match, and I was able to confirm it was the right ingredient in very fine (English) print on the nutrition panel. Plans for maypo tofu are in the works!

        At least I now know where to find the shrimp sauce if I would like some 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mine was orange-ish. Too bad it’s not in my inventory any more, else I’d send you a photo.

        I will warn you of the scent – quite intense. In fact, were it not for a maniacal urge to be as “authentic” as possible, oyster sauce would’ve been a splendid substitute. In fact, the next time I make the recipe, it will be.

        Your admirably dedicated quest for broad bean paste anticipates my own search for a Taiwanese ingredient, Red Pepper Crisp (it’s a paste too, actually). I looked it up on Amazon, to have an idea of its appearance. Good thing, too, as the label is entirely in Cantonese.

        Anyway, now that I know what it looks like, I’ll see if the local East Asian grocer carries it. It might not, as the store is rather diminutive. If there’s nothing doing there, then there’s always the internet. What would we cooks ever have done before the internet, Summer?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Chicken and curry. Yum. I grew up with an Americanized belief of what a curry was. Later I had several Indian friends who helped improved my knowledge of curries. It was quite a delicious lesson. 😋

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I envy you your education, JoAnn! With it, the refined tastes it encourages.

      Lots of curries planned for the months (and, audience willing, years) ahead, and few feature curry leaves/powder. Moreover, most hail from outside the subcontinent, be that Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, or Vietnam….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You turn food into an art and tempt people to try that which they would never touch.
    I’m glad you got to use your lid!
    I enjoy cooking plain green beans with white chicken. Or anything with chicken. Even in the oven. The chicken flavour spreads to the other foods and gives it a gorgeous taste.
    Here, you are spreading it then other way. From the sauce to the chicken. Adding in the mixture and blending tastes so that all the buds in the mouth enjoy the food at the same time.

    Love, light and glitter

    Happy Sunday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciate your regard, Eliza!

      Isn’t chicken just the ultimate culinary citizen, both giving to, and partaking of, the flavors around it? Few cooking processes take greater advantage of this rich exchange than does cookery in a tagine. You may recall a more complete description in the post a couple months or so ago. Is it any wonder Moroccan cuisine holds a special place in the pantheon?

      For that matter, is it any wonder chicken enjoys a special place in both our hearts? Many, many others’ hearts too. We proudly brandish the “Poultry Fiend” banner!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been really good at using turmeric and coconut milk in my recipes now, but, lemongrass… I never remember to buy it probably because I can’t never remember how it looks like LOL I And I love how it tastes! I learned the real definition of curry not so long ago and I was like “ooooh so THAT was a curry too!” 🙂
    I agree that it sounds like pure gold!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Daniela!

      Not sure what part of Boston you call home, but Lowell, in the northern suburbs, is home to one the nation’s foremost Cambodian-American populations. Anywhere near there is likely to have fields of lemongrass. If you’re in a local store, just ask! I’m sure they’d be flattered a “Westerner” is interested in one of their foremost ingredients.

      Of course, they probably have many, many varieties I’ve never heard of before. Which means, by the time you leave the store, you’ll be ready to educate me!


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