Cambodian cuisine is a little hard to come by around Phoenix, but the Cambodian restaurant we’re blessed with has an awful lot of heart.
Reathrey Sekong, run by Lakhana In and her family, offers a lengthy menu of homestyle Cambodian dishes, including a particularly delicious staple of Khmer cuisine, cha kreung.
Here’s everything you need to know about this month’s Killer Dish.
Does Reathrey Sekong serve Cambodian or Khmer cuisine?
Six of one, half a dozen of the other? It’s an oversimplification, but from a contemporary culinary standpoint, the terms are largely interchangeable. Modern-day Cambodia is rooted, principally, in Southeast Asia’s Khmer Empire, and today the Khmer people comprise more than 90 percent of Cambodia’s population.
So when you’re talking about traditional Cambodian foods, you’re effectively talking about Khmer cuisine.
And Lakhana In is from Cambodia?
Reathrey Sekong owner Lakhana In and her son-in-law, Det Bounyasane, outside their Cambodian restaurant in Phoenix March 11, 2019. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)
Yup! Along with so many others displaced by Cambodia’s devastating civil war of the 1970s, she fled first to Vietnam, then France, and spent two years in Utah before moving to Phoenix, where she has lived with her family for 37 years.
But didn’t Reathrey Sekong first open in 2011?
Well, she wasn’t always a cook. Not a professional one, anyway. She actually spent most of her career working for Intel. After retiring, In decided to open Reathrey Sekong, both to earn a little extra money and to share the foods of her culture with a city that didn’t have a single Cambodian restaurant.
So this cha kreung is a family recipe?
In a broader sense, no. Cha kreung is a staple of Cambodian cuisine. But as with any popular dish, every family adds its own unique flavor. In is originally from a town not far from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and the dishes she and her family cook at the restaurant are the homestyle recipes she brought with her.
Cha kreung seems awfully complicated for a homestyle dish.
To somebody who isn’t familiar with the cuisine, maybe. But watch her make it and you can see how quickly and easily it comes together.
How is it made?
It starts with kreung, a lemongrass seasoning paste that’s one of the cornerstones of Khmer cuisine.
Kreung is smooshed lemongrass?
Smooshed, yes, but it’s a whole lot more than lemongrass. For her recipe, In slices and grinds lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, plus…
Wait… is that the same as kaffir lime leaf? I’ve heard of that.
Yes, makrut and kaffir lime leaf are the same thing, but while both are correct, the latter also happens to be a nasty racial epithet in some parts of the world. So makrut lime leaf is rapidly gaining traction as the preferred term. Anyway, In slices and grinds lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, shallots, garlic, galangal and dried turmeric into a paste to make her kreung.
That sounds an awful lot like a Thai curry.
Small wonder why. Cambodia is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, and millennia of migrations, wars, occupations and trade routes have created exactly the kind of culinary cross-pollination you’d expect in the region.
There are all kinds of differences, of course, but in the States, Cambodian cuisine tends to play second fiddle to its more popular neighbors. It hardly seems fair, but then, there are a whole lot more Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, so it’s understandable that Western diners might look to those cuisines for a frame of reference. But for starters, while it sometimes can be, Kreung generally isn’t very spicy, and In’s certainly isn’t.
So if that’s the ‘kreung,’ what’s the ‘cha’?
“Cha” refers to the second stage of preparing the dish — the stir-fry. Once the kreung is made, the rest of the dish takes just a few minutes.
Is it white meat or dark meat?
Depends. Reathrey Sekong is a humble family operation, and whether you get light or dark meat might depend on the day and what they have available. White meat is more popular with Americans, to be sure, but personally, I’m always rooting for dark. (Spoiler: It tastes better.)
So how is the stir-fry done?
Quickly. It starts with a small wok over a hot flame and a healthy splash of oil. In drops in the chicken and cooks it, tossing the meat until it loses the raw color. Then she adds some sugar, fish sauce, a modest amount of chiles and a lot of fresh vegetables.
What kind of meat does she use?
Your choice! In will prepare the dish with chicken, beef or tofu, but I’m especially fond of the chicken.
What kind of vegetables?
Depends. (Sense a theme?) She’ll use whatever is seasonal and fresh. Recently, she’s been using sliced bell peppers and asparagus, but that could change next week. Actually, where In was raised, she says most people wouldn’t add vegetables at all. But she thinks they’re a nice addition, making for a more complete dish.
The kreung. And this is where things get fun, because the entire kitchen absolutely explodes with a wild aroma when that seasoning paste hits the hot wok. In tosses and cooks it for a little bit to dry out some of the liquid. Then just before plating the dish, she tosses in some slivered red onion.
Why doesn’t the onion go in with the rest of the vegetables?
Because it cooks faster. Wok cookery is all about timing, and for a simple stir-fry like this, it’s a matter of starting with the ingredients that take the longest amount of time to cook (the chicken) and finishing with the ones that take the shortest amount of time to cook (the onions), so that all of the components are done cooking — and not overcooked — at the same time.
And that’s it?
Almost. In plates the cha kreung, and just before serving it, she sprinkles on some finely slivered makrut lime leaf to give it an extra bright, crisp aroma.
So how does it taste?
Like a whole lot of delicious things are going on. The dish isn’t that complicated to make, but there are a lot of ingredients, and they aren’t subtle.
When you take a bite, waves of spicy, floral, sweet and herbaceous flavors wash over one another, brightened by citrusy and almost medicinal hints from the lime leaf and the galangal.
Texturally, it’s gorgeous — tender chicken with crisp and crunchy slivers of fresh vegetables. But most importantly, because In makes her own kreung, the components don’t become a mottled mess like so many middling or packaged curries. Each of the ingredients that goes into the kreung pops up, fades away, then reappears, bobbing and weaving as you eat, and you can pick out each and every flavor.
Where: Reathrey Sekong, 1312 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.