Chef Seri's Lemongrass Beef Sticks & Pickled Papaya Salad
"Why would anyone get excited about beef on a stick? The real question here is why not!? Sure, it might seem like a fairly ubiquitous summer BBQ item in most cultures throughout the world but Cambodian beef sticks just hit different. Please allow me to digress.
They hold a special place in my heart because I obsessed over them as a child (still do tbh). It was really the only thing I wanted when my parents would take me to FDR park (hood famous in Philly amongst SE Asians). I would salivate as the smoke from the grills would waft down towards the walking path. Once closer, you immediately notice the cluster of multi-colored umbrellas along the backdrop of the lake where the action is happening.
Nothing brought more excitement during my adolescent years than Saturday mornings at Olney Field. I was part of a rag-tag teen soccer team known as the Golden Monkeys that competed against grown men in a Cambodian Soccer league. I could care less about the athletics because it was always about the BBQ stand which sent sweet smoke wafting towards the pitch. After getting thrashed by our uncles and older cousins, my team would line up for beef sticks, chicken wings and papaya salad. With $5 in hand, you could make some serious moves here. Often, we’d share because that amount of money was hard to come by since most of our parents worked in factories. There was certainly a greater appreciation back then in my opinion for what little we had. For some reason, those beef sticks may have been the best I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe it was the ultimate reward for 90 minutes of grueling cardio? I just remember the most tender cuts of meat with charred pockets of fat in between. It was savory, sweet and aromatic from the charred lemongrass which soaked the tissues with yellow oils. The “G” move is to make sure you’re pinching some drouk (pickled veggies) in between bites.
Once up close, you see these perfectly grilled skewers of meat sizzling away as the fat drips into the grill causing it to erupt into more flames. It’s a sensory overload for your eyes as well as your nose. As a kid, your simple palette can only distinguish between good and not good. What you thought was a simple beef stick is actually a lot more complex. The beef sticks are marinated in a combination of kreung – A Cambodian paste of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic & turmeric, fish or oyster sauce, honey or palm sugar. Really, it’s done a variety of ways which all seem to work.
These beef sticks can be eaten straight out of the oil drenched paper bag or served alongside rice and pickled veggies which is called drouk. In Phnom Penh, they are served on crusty baguettes and topped with pickled papaya. If you're looking to go all the way Master Chef, then serve your grilled meat on top of vermicelli with fresh cucumber, carrot, and herbs and a sweet fish sauce. Whichever route you decide to go, you'll understand why they are special to me. Enjoy!"
- Chef Seri Chao
- 12-16 oz beef (preferably with fat) Note: It can be ribeye, chuck, or skirt steak. For a vegetarian friendly version you can use portobello mushrooms.
- 4 Tbsp Kreung paste (lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, garlic, salt)
- 1 1/2 tsp fish sauce
- 1 1/2 Tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp honey
- Slice beef into 1/2 inch pieces. Combine with remaining ingredients and marinate until completely coated.
- Place beef pieces on a skewer leaving about 2 inches at the bottom for handling.
- Grill until crisp or to desired taste. If you don't have a grill, you can also place skewers under a broiler on higher for about 4-5 minutes on each side.
Pickled Papaya Salad
- 2 cups unripe papaya, shredded (or unripe mango or cucumber)
- 1 carrot, peeled & shredded
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 3 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 shallot, minced
- Lightly salt the shredded papaya and carrot with 1 tsp salt and squeeze it until liquid starts to come out. This will help it absorb the pickling brine. Drain the salty liquid and wash it 2-3 times until the saltiness is gone from veggies.
- In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients to make the pickling juice. Then, either boil this mixture until the sugar dissolves or stir well.
- Place veggie mixture into a sealable jar and pour in the pickling juice. Close airtight.
Note: It's best to marinate this for 24 hours before serving.
Enjoy both the lemongrass beef and papaya salad with a side of jasmine rice!