Hello Everyone! I can’t believe that January went by so quickly, and it’s already the 3rd day of the 2nd month of 2021! Last week we shared our last recipe for local Bruneian eats; our first stop on our road to discover the Flavours of Southeast Asia for Amcarmen’s Kitchen. Our next stop for the month is Cambodia! Cambodian cuisine must be Southeast Asia’s most under-appreciated and most misunderstood cuisines amongst the others, and there’s a whole article about it that you can read if you have the time – Dispelling Cambodian Cuisine Myths.
Now, before I proceed, due to the limitations of sourcing certain ingredients, you may find the dishes shared here over the course of the month a little on the unauthentic side and I do apologise to any of my Cambodian readers or passersby. I tried my best to get as close to the original and traditional recipes.
Moving forward, Amok Trei អាម៉ុកត្, or in English, Steamed Fish Curry is Cambodia’s national dish; a classic Khmer dish traditionally served during the Water Festival in Cambodia as a way to thank the Mekong River for providing Cambodia with abundant fish and fertile land. It is a fragrant and spicy coconut fish curry that is tenderly steamed in banana leaves. The flavour of the dish is quite reminiscent of a mild Thai red curry. The fish is soaked in a rich Khmer kroeung paste and placed in little steamer cups made from banana leaves, imparting their specific flavour into the dish. When cooked, it should have a texture that has been described as a mousse, mousseline, soufflé, and custard.
Locals prefer cooking with goby fish, snakehead fish, or catfish – all freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap or Great Lake, when preparing Amok Trei. Most cookbooks written in the West suggest a firm white fish such as cod or snapper. In cooking classes in Siem Reap, cooking instructors tell participants they can use anything from barramundi to salmon. I used tilapia for my take on Amok Trei and it’s really up to you to decide what fish you want to cook with and most importantly what is readily available in your local market.
Khmer kroeung paste is the basic kroeung or freshly pounded herb and spice paste in Cambodian cooking. It gets its yellow colour from the turmeric and lemongrass stems. The yellow kroeung is used for many classic Khmer and Cambodian dishes, including Amok Trei. Now, a traditional kroeung paste would use kaffir lime zest, but since I could not source any from my local vegetable stall, I went ahead and used lemon zest instead. I also used bottled galangal for the same reason of being unable to source fresh ones.
Older generations of cooks believe that if it’s not properly steamed, it’s not Amok Trei. Amok means to steam in banana leaves in Khmer and it is thought that this refined dish is a Royal Khmer specialty dating back to the Khmer Empire. If it’s not steamed, it’s not amok, it’s curry. Despite its regal origins, Amok Trei is a dish that you’ll see sold in banana baskets on trays in markets and on the street.
Before we dive into tonight’s recipe, please take the time to check out the original where I drew my inspiration from over on Grantourismo by Lara and Terence.
PREP TIME 1 HOUR | COOKING TIME 20 MINS | MAKES 6-8
For the kroeung paste
- 5-6 lemongrass stalks, finely chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 small-sized turmeric, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp crushed galangal
- 1 tsp lemon zest
For the amok trei
- 750g tilapia fish filets, cut into medium-sized chunks
- 3 dried red chillies
- 2 large free range eggs
- 1/2 cup coconut milk*
- 3 tbsp kroeung paste
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp palm or coconut sugar
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- Pinch of salt
*I made my own coconut milk from grated mature coconut, but you can use store bought coconut milk if you wish.
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
- 2 red bird’s eye chillies, thinly sliced
For the banana leaf boats
- Banana leaves
- Kroeung Paste: Using a mortar and pestle, pound the lemongrass until completely mashed and you can no longer see its rings. Add the galangal, turmeric, and lemon zest, and pound further until they’re incorporated into the mashed lemongrass. Lastly, add the garlic and onion, and continue to pound. Work in batches if needed. The finished paste will have some fibres from the lemongrass but should otherwise be quite smooth in texture.
- Amok Trei: In the same mortar, add the dried chillies and pound well into the kroeung paste.
- In a large bowl, combine the kroeung, fish chunks, and the other ingredients. Lightly combine to avoid breaking up the fish chunks. Adjust the seasoning by cooking a bit of the mixture to be able to taste. The Amok should be well balanced; a little fishy, a little salty, slightly sweet, a tad spicy, and rich and creamy. Adjust as necessary by adding a pinch of salt or sugar, fish sauce, or even a little chilli. Set aside to marinate for about half an hour before steaming.
- Banana Leaf Boats: Meanwhile, prepare the banana leaf boats. Wipe a fresh banana leaf with a damp towel to remove any dirt and debris. Cut out the centre stem from the leaf and cut further into smaller rectangular pieces, about 15cm x 20cm in size.
- Blanch the leaf pieces in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then dry and let it cool.
- Place the banana leaf piece with the shiny side down so it ends up on the outside. Fold the one of the short sides about an inch and a half over, do the same with the one of the longer sides. Pinch and fold the corner over onto the short side. Do the same with the other side and and fasten the folds with a toothpick. Repeat on the other side to form a banana leaf boat. For a picture guide, you can head on over to Table for 2 or More by WendyinKK.
- Steaming: Divide the fish amok mixture equally into 6 or 8 banana leaf boats, filling each boat almost to the top. Carefully place into the steamer basket and steam for 20 minutes. The fish amok should be cooked through and firm to touch but still retain moistness. It should not be dry.
- About 15 minutes into steaming, top each boat of fish amok with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, and chillies. Continue to steam for another 5 minutes.
- Once done, serve immediately with freshly steamed white rice and a side of vegetables of your choice. Enjoy!
- If you do not have a mortar and pestle, you may use a food processor to make your kroeung paste.
- Other proteins such as chicken, tofu, and snails can also be used as a substitute for the fish in this dish (but note horrifies older generations).
– Ally xx