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.