“Hands-down, the best meal I’ve eaten in Cambodia” my husband said, staring earnestly at me from across the table. It was quite a statement, after 15 months of eating in Cambodia, but I suspect he was right. We had taken a gamble, choosing a place at random from the 20-odd seafood restaurants lined up in a row over the sea beside Kep’s crab market. We had eaten at Sunset restaurant before and found the food to be good but not spectacular and knew Kim Ly restaurant to be much loved and disliked in equal measure, as is often the way with the Lonely Planet favourites. There was nothing particularly distinguishing about Srey Pov restaurant but we liked the name and had decided to give it a go. Our gamble paid off.
Cambodian recipes: A Seafood Feast from Kep
Simple Cambodian recipes for the seafood lover, inspired by a special meal in the coastal town of Kep. Prepare grilled squid, green pepper crab and prawn curry.
We sat at a table literally hanging over the ocean on a simple bamboo floor. The sea below us, mountains in the distance, and people in small wooden fishing boats dotting the space to the horizon. We placed our order and watched as our host rolled up her trousers and waded out to the crab-pots bobbing in the sea to collect our meal.
The grilled squid came first, fresh from the barbeque at the front of the restaurant. In typical Cambodian style, the squid had been little tampered with – the beaks were removed but the insides were still present and ink stained one end of the plate. It was light and perfectly cooked, delicious with a sweetened chilli dipping sauce.
Kampot pepper crab soon followed, a much loved classic and the main attraction, the very reason we were eating at the Kep crab market. Pepper from neighbouring Kampot province is known to be among the world’s finest and it pairs superbly with fresh seafood. We had eaten and enjoyed this dish many times before but had never experienced one as exquisite as this. The crab was succulent and super- fresh, coated in a rich sauce with satay undertones and lines of intensely flavoured green peppercorns. We licked the sauce from the crab, broke their light shells between the fingers or teeth and sucked out the succulent, superfresh meat. It was absolutely divine and we didn’t want it to end.
We were well satisfied with the crab by the time our final dish arrived – why had we ordered more? Not being one to waste anything I dug in and was soon as engrossed in this dish as I had been the crab. Filled to the brim with large juicy prawns and a thick turmeric-based curry that was distinctly Khmer. On its own it was a stunnng dish. Topping off this feast it cemented our opinion of Srey Pov restaurant as truly exceptional.
If you ever find yourself in southeastern Cambodia, you will want to taste the famous Kampot Pepper Crab. Head over to the Kep Crab Market, visit Srey Pov restaurant and settle in to enjoy a range of delicious, fresh-as-they-come seafood dishes in an open-air setting over the ocean.
I won’t be back for a while but knew this was a menu I wanted to recreate. I've since created my own version of each of these dishes. Here is my take on these distinctly Cambodian recipes.
Where is Srey Pov Restaurant?
It's in Kep in southeastern Cambodia. Kep is a small resort town close to the border with Vietnam and was once the playground of the french elite. Although it was completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, leaving only shells of colonial mansions, Kep has been revitalised as a popular weekend destination for Phnom Penh residents drawn to its famous seafood and lovely mountain resorts.
Srey Pov restaurant occupies the unassuming shopfront pictured at left and is one of a string of restaurants at the Kep crab market, which is on the western side of the Kep peninsula.
Grilled Squid with Lime and Chilli Dipping Sauce
Prep time 15 min - Total time 20 min
Ingredients for 4 servings
1-2 red birdseye chillies • 1-2 cloves garlic • Juice of one lime • 3 tbsp fish sauce • 3 tbsp water • 1-2 tbsp palm sugar • lime juice (extra) • 2 whole squid
1. Pound together chilli and garlic. Add lime juice, fish sauce, water and sugar and mix well.
2. Clean squid then cut down one side so that you can lay the squid flat. Score the inside and brush with a small amount of lime juice.
3. Cook over a hot barbeque or grill, turning once only, until opaque (just - don't overcook or it will become rubbery).
4. Cut the squid into slices and serve with the dipping sauce.
Kampot Pepper Crab
Prep time 10 min - Total time 50 min
Ingredients for 4 servings
1 large or 3 small crabs (mud or blue swimmer) • 2/3 cup peanuts • 1 tbsp cooking oil • 4-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped • 1 bunch spring onions, white end sliced finely, green end sliced in 1 inch lengths • 1/2 cup soy sauce • 3 tbsp palm sugar • 1/4 cup fish sauce • 2 tsp tamarind puree • 12 green peppercorn vines
1. To cook the crab, first scrub the exterior clean and then place the crab in a large pot of boiling water and boil for 30-50 minutes (depending on the size of the crab).
NOTE: If you have bought live crab you should kill the crab before boiling it. Scroll down to the bottom of this recipe for instructions on a humane method.
2. Meanwhile, dry roast the peanuts over a medium heat, continually shifting the peanuts in the pan to prevent burning. Allow to cool.
3. To remove the peanut skins, wrap the nuts in a towel and rub vigorously. Grind the peanuts with a mortar and pestle.
4. Remove the crab from the pot and allow to cool. Remove the abdomen then use a cleaver to cut down the centre of the crab. Remove the internal organs and the enire mouth area, leaving only the white crab meat. Segment the crab halves so that each leg is a single piece.
6. Add the soy sauce and palm sugar. When the palm sugar has dissolved, add the peppercorn vines and stir for a further 1-2 minutes.
Read this article before you cook your crab:
Cambodian Prawn Curry
Prep time 20 min - Total time 35 min
Ingredients for 4 servings
1-2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped • 1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped • 2-4 dried red chillies, soaked, seeded and finely chopped • 1 tsp turmeric, finely chopped • 6-10 cloves garlic, finely chopped • 6 shallots, finely chopped • 1 tsp shrimp paste • 2 tbsp oil • 1 & 1/2 cup water • 1kg prawns, peeled and deveined (tails left on) • 400ml coconut cream
1. First, make the kroeung (khmer curry paste). Place the lemongrass in a mortar and pestle and pound well. Add the galangal and continue to pound. Add the chillies, turmeric, garlic and shallots, pounding each ingredient well before adding the next. Pound all ingredients together until smooth. (Alternatively use a food processor). Mix in the shrimp paste.
2. In a pan, heat up the oil over a low heat. Add the kroeung and stir until aromatic. Add 1/2 cup of water and bring to boil.
3. Ensure the pan is on a low heat. Add the prawns and toss them about the pan, coating them in the kroeung. Lightly saute the prawns for one minute.
4. Add coconut cream and 1 cup of water. Simmer the curry for 2-3 minutes or until the sauce is suitably thick. Serve with plain rice.