Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Annals of Addictive Condiments: Lok Lak

Continuing on the themes of “spices making great souvenirs” and “addictive condiments from other countries”, I was giddy with excitement last weekend when my friend Elsa handed me two small containers from her recent trip to Cambodia.  Inside container one: kampot black pepper, my favorite.  Inside the other was a spice mixture labeled “lok lak.”

Elsa, though relatively new to traveling in the developing world, has seen a lot in just the past few years.  She admits to not being much of a cook so it is was all the more surprising to hear her gush about her love for lok lak, one of the better known dishes of Cambodia. 

Admittedly, I can’t remember eating lok lak either of the times I have been in Cambodia, getting hung up instead on spicy pork stir fries and fish amok.  But as Elsa described the dish of seared, sliced beef with a peppery lime juice dipping sauce, I realized it sounded quite a bit like Vietnamese “shaking beef”. 

Bu Luc Lac, or "Shaking Beef"
Indeed, a bit of research revealed that that lok lak was most likely a variation bu luc lac, brought over to Cambodia from Vietnam by colonialists sometime in the mid twentieth century.   

But even if the origin of the dish is not truly Khmer, at least the ingredients can be.  Equal parts salt, palm sugar, and Cambodian black pepper mix together with lime juice and minced garlic to form and condiment that (yes, Elsa) is really addictive. 

Cambodian recipes call for stir-frying beef or chicken with soy and ketchup but I decided to stick to the traditional Vietnamese roots with a variation on Shaking Beef I’d done in the past.  But it wouldn’t have been the dish it was without that purely Cambodian spice mixture.  All that separates these two deeply loved dishes from two neighboring countries are a couple of letters and the world’s best black pepper.  

Shaking Beef
Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

2 lb. rib eye or filet of beef, fat trimmed off
2 T. vegetable oil
½ large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 T. soy sauce
1 ½ T. rice wine vinegar
1 ½ T. white wine
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
Cooked rice

Heat a wok over high heat.  Trim fat off beef and cut into bite sized pieces about 1 inch by 1 inch. Season beef with salt and pepper.  Thinly slice red onion and garlic then toss with the beef. In a small bowl mix soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, rice wine, fish sauce and sugar.  Heat vegetable oil in the sauté pan until smoking.  Add beef in 3-4 batches, careful not to crowd the pan. Let sit on one side without touching for 1-2 minutes until browned.  Flip to the other side and brown for an additional minute.  Remove to a plate and repeat with remaining meat.  When all meat is browned, add reserved beef and any juices back into the wok along with soy sauce mixture.  Saute for an additional two minutes until meat is warmed and liquid reduced slightly.  Garnish with cilantro leave or sliced green onion.  Serve with steamed rice and lok lak.

Lok Lak Dipping Sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp palm sugar
1 garlic clove
3 T. fresh lime juice

Mix ingredients together and serve with stir fried beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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