Since we started the Plates section in this magazine, I’ve tested out almost a dozen artist recipes – from the minimalist (Robert Zhao’s Instant Noodles in the Studio, which called for a visit to Daiso to get the proper plastic bowl to cook it in) – to the quirky (Roger Ballen’s Toasted Coconut Ice Cream, served on a headless Barbie doll!). All have been sampled by friends and family, who bravely volunteered to taste the results of my culinary forays into the world of artists’ recipes.
This one, however, Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich‘s Toek Kroeung, or Spiced Water, has received the most enthusiastic response thus far, dug into with gusto by three girlfriends who came over to celebrate a birthday. Like a previous recipe, Heman Chong’s Peanut Porridge (for Starving Artists), this one comes from the Mori Art Museum’s Artist Cookbook by MAM, part of its Covid-19 digital project which ran during the period of the museum’s closure, from 28 April – 31 July 2020.
I did a little research and learnt that Kroeung is the generic Cambodian word for a number of spice/herb pastes that make up the base flavours of many Khmer dishes, which are often dubbed with the “- kroeung” suffix. Toeuk Kreung is used as a dipping condiment for fresh or lightly blanched vegetables. Here is the recipe for Sopheap’s version of the dish, as displayed on the Mori Art Museum’s Facebook page.
There are a few ingredients in the recipe that may give you pause – snakehead fish, water-hyacinth flowers and neem flowers or young neem leaves. Snakehead fish – also known locally as 生鱼 (Sheng Yu) or Toman fish – is believed to have wound healing properties and is often served as a soup to someone who has recently undergone surgery. It is not always readily available from the fishmongers at our local wet markets. I got mine online, from Jurong Frog Farm, and it arrived already filleted and deboned.
Water hyacinths are fairly ubiquitous in rural Indo-China but unfortunately, I couldn’t get hold of any here in Singapore. Neem leaves, which I knew that I would be able to find in Little India, are believed to have health benefits in traditional Indian culture and are often used in Ayurvedic healing. I got mine from one of the stalls in Little India selling jasmine, flower garlands and leaves that are used for prayers by Hindus.
The dish is pretty easy to prepare. The vegetables (whichever kinds you have chosen to use) just need to be cut into bite-sized portions. The ones that can be eaten raw (lettuce, cucumber, winged beans, for example) don’t need anything further to be done to them. For the rest, like ladies’ fingers, baby corn and string beans, just lightly blanch or steam them.
To make the paste, you need to grill the snakehead fish, flake it and then mix it with various ingredients like garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar, salt, lime juice, chili and Thai basil (see the recipe above). I wanted to replicate the recipe as closely as possible, so yes, dear reader, I lit a small charcoal grill to grill the fish over, as the artist did. It was totally worth the effort too as it added a deliciously smoky flavour to the Kroeng.
Sopheap Pich’s stunning organic and geometric rattan and bamboo sculptures have won him international acclaim as an artist. Born in Cambodia, he left the country with his family at the age of 12 to escape the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, arriving in the United States in 1984 and eventually going to art school there. In 2002, however, he returned to Cambodia, perhaps out of a nostalgia for his childhood and a desire to reconnect with his home country. Sopheap began to make works using traditional craft methods that he learnt from his father as a child, such as basket weaving, and using natural materials like bamboo, rattan, burlap, beeswax and earth pigments gathered from around where he lived. Speaking of his practice, the artist says:
“My sculptures resist easy categorisations and expectations. For me, they are more about the slow labor of making something from nothing, a connection to natural materials.”
It is hardly surprising that, when asked to provide a recipe for a dish for the Mori Art Museum’s Artist Cookbook by MAM, he would choose a traditional Khmer dish made from fresh ingredients readily available on the farm where he lives, just outside Phnom Penh. Like his works, this dish is entirely resonant with the artist, his history and his surroundings.
Here’s a great video about the artist and his practice, if you’d like to learn more: