Let me just cut to the chase: This plain-seeming Cambodian porridge-soup hybrid is probably the most flavorful soup I’ve ever made in such a short period of time. It probably took less than 45 minutes—including grinding the pork loin. And its main components consist of rice and water. The majority of the thanks goes to the pork, garlic, herbs, fried shallots, and fish-sauce condiment we already had in our fridge (recipe below), but the other flavors are still there in shaded nuances, layering on top of each other to bring this bowl up to the level of a kind of a light, porky pho broth.
The recipe, of course, is adapted from one in Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. (I promise this is not about to become a “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” blog. I’m done for the week. I swear.)
As listed below, it makes 3 large bowls.
• 4 oz. ground pork (ground from loin that was $1.98/lb.): 48 cents
• 3/4 cup dry rice, rinsed well in cold water (preferably Thai jasmine): 4 cents
• 8 cloves garlic, chopped: 20 cents
• 2 stalks lemongrass: 18 cents
• One 1-inch piece of ginger: 10 cents
• 1 tsp shrimp paste; I keep a little tub in the freezer (you could also use 1 T dried shrimp): 15 cents
• 3 small French shallots, chopped (99 cents for a large bag): 12 cents
• 3 T vegetable oil: 9 cents
• Spoonfuls of fish sauce condiment* to taste (or plain fish sauce): 20 cents
• 6 leaves sawtooth herb, or cilantro if you don’t have it (1/4 bunch): 20 cents
• 12 leaves Thai basil (1/4 bunch): 20 cents
• 2 green onions, thinly sliced: 15 cents
• 1/4 cup chopped peanuts: 35 cents
• Freshly ground black pepper: 1 cent
• Lime slices (optional)
GRAND TOTAL: $2.47/3 = 82 cents/serving
*We keep a jar of this in our fridge; it’s a perfect condiment for any Southeast Asian dish and transcendent as a dipping sauce for things like spring rolls and lettuce wraps:
• 1/4 cup powdered sugar (or granulated sugar processed in a spice grinder): 5 cents
• Sliced Asian chile, depending on how much heat you want (this time we used 1 large): 5 cents
• Juice of 1 lime (we also keep a lime slice in there): 33 cents
• 1/4 cup fish sauce: 6 cents
TOTAL: 49 cents
Remove and discard the grassy tops of the lemongrass stalks and bang the lower 4 inches of the stalk flat with a mallet or rolling pin. Peel the ginger and bang it flat as well. Add the smashed lemongrass, ginger, shrimp or shrimp paste, and 6 cups water to a soup pot. Bring to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. Add the rice and keep at a low boil for about 15 minutes, until rice is cooked. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, heat a small cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add 2 T of oil and heat until smoking; add the garlic, stir until fragrant, and add the pork, cooking until lo longer pink, about 2 minutes.
Stir the garlic and pork into the soup pot. Turn the skillet heat down to medium-high, add the remaining T of oil, and fry the shallots until golden. Transfer to a small bowl.
Coarsely tear the leaves of the herbs. At left is some of the sawtooth herb, also known as culantro. Not to be confused with cilantro, although they do taste similar, so cilantro could be substituted in a pinch.
Slice the green onions and chop the peanuts.
When ready to serve, reheat the soup. Put a small pile of green onions and herbs in the bottom of each bowl, ladle the soup over. Top with fried shallots, peanuts, and a generous pinch of freshly ground black pepper (I tried to skip this step with one bowl and it made a huge difference, and not in a good way. Don’t leave it out.) Squeeze lime over the top if you’re using it. Add fish sauce or fish sauce condiment to taste; there’s no salt in the soup, so don’t be afraid to add a lot.