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:
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
- 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.