I wish there was a better English translation for Samlar Machu (also spelled Samlor Machu) which in Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia, translates as “sour soup.” That’s because Samlar Machu is really not THAT sour and there’s a lot more going on besides just the sour flavor – hints of sweet, salty, spicy (though not super spicy) all fuse together for a wonderfully flavorful and soothing Cambodian soup.
When it comes to Southeast Asian soup recipes, unlike say, Pho or Laksa, Samlar Machu is not that well-known outside Cambodia. But Samlar Machu isn’t so much a single recipe as it is an entire category of soups.
It has almost unlimited manifestations within Cambodia using a wide range of ingredients. They often include lemongrass, galangal, cilantro and other local herbs, local vegetables, fish sauce, sugar, chiles, and different meats. The sour flavor often comes from tamarind but other souring agents can be used. In this recipe, we’ll be using lime juice.
Samlar Machu is almost always served with a side of jasmine rice.
I’m going to share with you exactly how I learned to make Samlar Machu in Cambodia.
But don’t worry, the reason I’m sharing this recipe is because it’s not only incredibly simple but all the ingredients are easy to find in your local supermarket or health food store. Lemongrass might be the only thing you need to seek out. Most Whole Foods now carry lemongrass and any Asian market will certainly have it.
If you ever find yourself in Cambodia, you’ll certainly find yourself at some point in Siem Reap. It’s the bustling small city just outside Angkor Wat and the indescribably awe-inspiring and beautiful temples of Angkor.
Siem Reap has become a trendy international cultural hot spot in the past 20 years due to the influx of tourists. And there’s now a lot to do besides just visiting the temples.
When you need a break from temple touring, I’d HIGHLY recommend taking a cooking course with Lily Austin Danz who is the owner and chef of Lily’s Secret Garden. It’s a great way to learn about Cambodian food, which has its own unique flavors and traditions.
Lily offers group cooking classes at her beautiful country home just outside downtown Siem Reap however she made an exception for me one day when I requested my own private class.
I really wanted to learn how to cook a Samlar Machu (and a few other soups) which is a little more detailed than what she typically offers in a group class.
In this recipe, we used fish for the meat but you can use any meat you want – chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, squid, etc.
Personally, I think fish is best because its light and delicate texture complements the soup well, which is typically a light broth-based soup.
In Cambodia (and in every other Southeast Asian country) whole fish is used more than fish filets for many reasons. Whole fish has more nutritional benefits than just fish filets. For example, there are many fatty acids and trace minerals (such as iodine) concentrated in the head of the fish.
And using a whole fish is a great way to make a fish broth!
I’m not sure what type of fish Lily used but it was definitely something from the Tonle Sap lake, the nearby huge lake (the biggest in southeast Asia) that provides Cambodia with most of its fish. It was a small fish, meant for two people, about 1 pound and around 9 to 10 inches long.
A comparable small fish to use would be a small trout, porgy, snapper, or black sea bass.
Chop the whole fish into 5 or 6 chunks. Your fishmonger can do this for you too.
If you want to forego using a whole fish and making your own fish broth, seek out a good quality pre-made fish broth or other seafood broth in place of the 4 cups of water in the recipe below. Even a light chicken stock would suffice. And seek out some good quality local fish fillets. Any whitefish will do.
Here’s an actual picture of Lily’s soup:
Yeah I know, not exactly as pretty as the cover picture. But I needed a better pic than this one. My little travel camera isn’t the best and the light wasn’t great. But that’s the actual soup we made.
And it tasted ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.