Unpacking the Bundle

Just one raft of three lemongrass sections is sufficient to flavor a whole potful of soup, earning Khmer Lemony Fish Soup its name.  The fish glides through a simple broth accompanied only by rice and flavored with only a few herbs, in addition to the aforementioned lemongrass.  The lemongrass provides an herbal, citrusy melody that complements nicely freshwater fish.

That’s how it starts.  After the soup cooks and the lemongrass imparts its lilting essence to both the fish and to the broth, a number of garnishes are sprinkled on top.  These include limes and chopped herbs, scallions and red peppers.  Not only do these add color, as you can see, but they also deepen the flavor and contribute character.

When the recipe appeared on the Cambodia Recipe website it attracted notice, not least of which because it appears to be My Linh Nakry’s new web home, nearly a year after her original site, Khmer Krom Recipes, just disappeared without notice or explanation.  Bad enough for a favorite website to evaporate, but it provided an unfortunate reminder of what happened to millions of Cambodians after the revolution.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending.  Cambodia Recipe features most of Nakry’s excellent recipes, as well as some new ones.  Today’s preparation seems to be one of her favorites.  She writes that Lemony Fish Soup “always (puts) a smile on my face and a warm feeling of home sweet home.”

It’s easy to imagine why it does.  The herbs contribute a clean freshness, while the lemongrass provide a cheerful brightness that makes the soup radiant.  Quite a feat for a stalk of grass.


Khmer Lemony Fish Soup

  • 2 pounds catfish filets, cut into bite-size chunks (*1)
  • 2 tablespoons uncooked jasmine rice
  •  lemongrass stalk, cut into five-inch lengths and tied into a bundle
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar (*2)
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
  • 2 stalks green onion, chopped
  • 2 dried hot Thai chilies, chopped
  • 1/2 cup mixed chopped herbs, such as cilantro, or sweet Cambodian basil (*3)
  • 1 fresh lime, sliced

Set a large saucepan over a medium-high flame and pour in the water.  Put in the fish, rice and lemongrass bundle and bring to a boil.  Reduce flame the medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the fish sauce, sugar and black pepper.  Stir to combine, then turn off heat.

Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with limes, and chopped scallions, chili peppers and herbs.


1 -Nakry’s recipe specifies catfish as only one of three possibilities.  The other two are basa and snakefish, both of which are hard to find outside Cambodia, or at least outside of areas with numerous Cambodian immigrants.  For that reason, catfish was the option I exercised.  Had no choice, actually.

2 – Naturally, I had palm sugar in the fridge, and I used a little of it.  It’s probably what the original recipe uses, though brown sugar would be a great substitute too.

3 – I took an all-cilantro route.  Last year I grew some Cambodian herbs, but they were harvested long ago.  I won’t be able to try Round Two until the summer, so for now cilantro it is.  Really not a bad option.



38 thoughts on “Unpacking the Bundle

  1. oh my Keith it sounds like the poor fishy is swimming about in your hot broth … do pray you at least kill the critter if you must eat him 🙂

    Great reminder of the Cambodian carnage … sadly it happens too often in too many places! When will we ever learn …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kate.

      Had the Republic survived the Khmer Rouge onslaught, there would’ve been no genocide and no subsequent mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

      Most settled here in the US, bringing their cuisine with them, of course. Naturally, that meant some of them opened restaurants.

      Much as I love Cambodian cuisine, and as frequently as it appears here, I would prefer to have remained ignorant of its charms, if that meant there would’ve been no killing fields.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my. I could try to explain how good that sounds right about now, but my words would be utterly bland, especially in the face of such masterful descriptions as yours. I could only echo your own words in an attempt to expand on them, and then instead fall utterly silent as my imagination carries me away to a place of edible bliss.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Quite a compliment, Rachel – thanks! Your wordsmithing is vibrant, and it carries the day, despite…

      Daydreams being a very real distraction here. We’re talking about delectable bundles of lemongrass, giving a citrusy kiss to a perpetually-summered country’s cuisine. How can the mind do anything but attempt to escape North America’s February gloom?

      About to make point, but all I’m hearing now are palm fronds rustling and the glistening tide lapping a sandy beach….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Remember the other senses, Rachel! There’s the silken caress of powder-white sands. The gently warm tropical breeze whispering by, thrilling you to its touch.

        The surf’s resplendent azure, mesmerizing, drawing the imagination to the depths and beyond.

        Then there are the tastes. Lemongrass, ginger; perhaps a touch of coconut milk. All in beautiful harmony. Rapture. You may have had taste buds before, but only now are you really using them.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated, Crystal!

      Not too dramatic, I hope. After all, there’s a splendid cuisine to describe here.

      The food itself sings. No need to let my excessive enthusiasm overshoot it. Pay no attention to the flowery prose. Just glance at the photo, close your eyes and imagine…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Crystal! Your thoughtfulness buoys me!

      Can’t say I’m the biggest fish fan (shellfish, yes, but that’s another story), though I’m addicted to East Asian cuisines.

      The latter won that particular contest, and its prize was a Saturday’s stockpot contents warming – and perfuming – the winter air. Isn’t cooking a delight?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. At the time, you were hoping to stop a team of horses, too, which meant the word choice was doubly fortunate.

      Seriously, thanks much, Mia! The lime really ties everything together, in both taste and aesthetics. You did good, Cambodia!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a different experience for me as I am not familiar with catfish. They scare me because of their whiskers. I, once, heard one meow, too, and that really freaked me out. I felt better when it started purring. But, ya… those whiskers are scary, for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You aren’t kidding about the noises they emit, Tamara. Are you a fish, or something else?

      Smart thing, too, for you to be wary of the whiskers, as they’re barbed. Best left to the professionals, who brave the hazards to supply filets to the fishmonger.

      Ah, the niceties of urban/suburban life, no?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even if you live completely outside the metros, there’s the world online (remember the Amazon magic box we discussed previously?).

        Someone in rural North Dakota has access now to a pantry more fully-stocked than did Manhattanites a generation ago.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Catfish are one of my favorite fish and I do not have them nearly enough! It seems like every restaurant and shop featured catfish when we traveled to the southeastern US but they’re just not as common up here. I can’t say I’ve ever tried the other types of fish you’ve mentioned.

    Also, I loved that you just happened to have the palm sugar hanging around. Haha You are a true foodie! It’s so nice having a well-stocked kitchen, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely, Summer. A well stocked pantry is a comforting joy, isn’t it?. Let the storm rage – I’m fine where I am! I’ll just spend the weekend cooking.

      Catfish is rather difficult to locate here in Pennsylvania too, though our proximity to Baltimore and to the Chesapeake means there are sources nearby.

      With the other two varieties (basa and snakehead), don’t think we’ll have much luck finding them when we’re this far from Phnom Penh.

      As for the palm sugar, would you believe I also have another tub in reserve, unopened still? Gotta make sue that pretentiousness stays well-supplied!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, more of a paste.

        It does have a somewhat granular texture, but within the broader context of it being viscous (barely). It definitely tightens up when it’s refrigerated after the tub’s wax seal is breached.

        Think, maybe, ice cream.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Still, the block of palm sugar is a cool concept, Summer, if for no reason other than the novelty.

        Have you ever seen pillons (I think they’re canned), cones of Mexican raw sugar? Always wanted to try them, but there’s not much available here, a couple thousand or so miles from the border.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Creative, Tamara!

      Apologies to Skylar, to Tiger (my cat, though living at my mother’s house) and to cats everywhere, here’s how it would go down:

      Land a catfish. After it finishes flopping on the pier, the cat would approach, within excessive caution. After seemingly hours, a paw approaches the fish. gingerly and slowly.

      Then, the catfish produces one of its signature bizarre noises. The cat jumps, then scurries away and hides behind a cooler twenty feet away, only occasionally daring to peek around the corner.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great – bullseye, then!

        Just a couple days ago I stopped by my mother’s place to help with a few tasks. While there. Tiger followed me into the basement, and spotted one of those thousand-leggers (whatever they’re called; I’m sure you can picture them). The situation described with the catfish transpired.

        Except this time, Tiger hid behind the stairs, not a cooler!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I share your disdain, Tamara, yours and Tiger’s, though I’ve come to regard spiders, etc. as our species’ allies – distasteful allies, to be sure – in its struggle with the insects.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. oh wow your blog today reminds me of my yoga place K! So fresh, zen and relaxing! So many green things I like, such as lime and cilantro!
    Lemony flavor, rice, simple broth, a few herbs…. you are talking my language! I think I would go with the basa option 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Daniela, your regard is much appreciated!

      That’s a new one for me – basa, that is. Prior to reading your comments, I though it was difficult to find outside Cambodia. Of course, one of our nation’s premier Cambodian populations is outside Boston (in Lowell, I think), and it’d make sense local markets would offer a Cambodian flair.

      Glad you appreciate the simplicity. Testifying, I suppose, that not everything on these pages is complicated enough for 18th century-Versailles.

      Liked by 1 person

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