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Cambodia: the art of amok

Complex, delicate and distinct, fish amok is notoriously tough to make, but there's no dish more important to the Cambodian sense of identity

Cambodia: the art of amok

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The story of a dish can often be wrapped up in a country’s past — its aromas conjuring up years of tradition and culture, evoking a sense of nostalgia in natives, and perhaps imparting a little local understanding in travellers. In Cambodia, this is particularly true of amok.

Said to have been created in the royal Khmer Empire between the ninth and 15th centuries, it’s a recipe that was passed down through generations. But when the Khmer Rouge was in power, between 1975 and 1979, the genocidal regime not only slaughtered around 1.7 million people, it also wiped out much of the country’s heritage and culture, meaning much of its treasured culinary knowledge — passed orally from mother to daughter — was lost. Amok, with its laborious, complicated but richly rewarding recipe, became a dish fewer people instinctively knew how to make.

To embrace amok now, is to reach back beyond the era of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, pick up something ‘good’ and bring it back to the present — a process Cambodians have been trying to apply to many aspects of life. Over the past decade or so, they’ve been rediscovering their own cuisine — one that’s been largely overlooked internationally in favour of those of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. Although similar to these, it’s also very different — subtler, less spicy, more reliant on foraged herbs and plants and a local, stinky, funky fermented fish sauce known as prahok.

Joannès Rivière, a French-born chef and owner of award-winning restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak, in Siem Reap, explains: “Cambodian food is first and foremost a cuisine of place. It’s also about how primary tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) are balanced not in a single dish but as part of the group on the table.”

Amok trei (steamed curried fish) is widely considered to be Cambodia’s national dish — a vibrant, mousse-like affair, almost a lightly curried fish custard. A celebrated version is made by Kethana Dunnett, the owner of two restaurants (both called The Sugar Palm) in the capital, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. I’ve come to her beautiful, airy house in the countryside, en route between Siem Reap and the temple of Banteay Srei, to learn to cook amok. Kethana shows me the garden where she grows galangal, lemongrass, and noni trees, whose leaves bring a subtle, bitter quality to this dish.

In the kitchen, the amok ingredients are laid out on the counter: lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, kaffir lime (fruit and leaves), dried red pepper, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and pieces of white fish. The essence of amok is a spice paste called kroeung that takes time and dedication to create, if made the traditional way. “Amok is not an everyday dish,” says Kethana. “People make it for special occasions — ceremonies and weddings and things like that. In our family, we started it from scratch and it took a long time. Now people can make it much more quickly because food processors can help them do all the grinding and pounding. And you can buy ready-made ingredients in the market these days.”

As she pounds the mixture in a pestle and mortar, an amazing burst of lemongrass and turmeric fills the air. “When you put it through the machine, the smell is different. But here you get the natural oils coming out,” Kethana explains. She next scrapes coconut flesh from its shell before passing it through a pillowcase to produce coconut cream; the noni leaves are then placed in the bottom of a banana-leaf basket and, finally, the fish, kroeung and coconut cream are blended with eggs before it’s all steamed.

“If you go to 10 different places, they’ll each cook amok differently. Some fry it because it’s quicker, some even put it in the microwave. But I don’t do any of that because it’s not true amok,” says Kethana, with a look of disdain. “It should be more souffle and soft.”

dried ingredients, Siem Reap

As I journey around Cambodia, I discover that Kethana certainly knows what she’s talking about and does, indeed, make the best amok. In Siem Reap, Akim Ly, the owner of Cambodia Vespa Adventures, takes me on a scooter tour of the northwestern city. At the street food market on Road 60, we try fried crickets and silkworm larvae (they taste like buttery toffee). As Akim peels the wings from a water beetle and offers it to me, she remarks that amok has traditionally been the preserve of the affluent (she grew up in poverty, eating insects — if she was lucky). “Fake amok”, as she calls it, is sold up and down Pub Street, the tourist-trap strip in central Siem Reap. “When I make amok, I try to make it a little more tender, lighter, so I don’t add egg yolk, just the white, and I use more coconut milk, to make it wet,” she says. “When it’s moist it’s better — I think the yoke destroys the taste.”

In Cambodia’s second-largest city, Battambang, at Jaan Bai — a restaurant run by the Cambodian Childrens’ Trust, which gives disadvantaged children training in the service industry — they use the whole egg. In Phnom Pen, at Romdeng Restaurant, another social enterprise, they don’t use egg at all. “We stir fry it and add the sauce, but we don’t steam it,” the manager tells me.

Sim Thea manages Kravanh, a restaurant in the capital specialising in Khmer food. She tells me she worries that eventually amok will be lost. “The children these days can’t do it,” she explains. “It’s a big job that you learn from your mum. We’ve got 10 chefs in our kitchen but only two can do amok — and they just do amok. We do use a blender, but two kilos of amok takes one hour with a blender.”

When I head down the coast to the city of Kep — famous for its crab — I stop in at Knai Bang Chatt. The restaurant’s executive chef, Jay Scaife, tells me that when he arrived in Cambodia from Canada he tasted numerous versions of amok. “I like the richness when there’s egg, the depth that it adds. It’s a nod to old-school consommes and it keeps the moisture.” Yet the hotel’s guide, Lek Sokanthea, vehemently disagrees: “I don’t like putting egg inside it; it’s too sticky and thick. I like the sauce from the amok, and I think they only put the egg in so it doesn’t leak through the banana leaf.”

In a kitchen overlooking Chakk Kep Bay, I take a final amok class with sous chef Thann Heng, but here we use sea bass, shrimp, crab meat and oyster mushrooms. As Thann shreds kaffir lime leaves — to be used along with red chillis to dress the dish — I tell him that almost every amok I’ve come across differs in some way. He laughs. “It’s five chefs, five styles,” he says. “That’s the beauty of amok.”


Recipe

fish amok

Fish Amok by Kethana Dunnett

Ingredients

* For the kroeung: 2 finely chopped lemongrass stalks, half a thumb-size piece of both chopped galangal and turmeric, 1 kaffir lime leaf, 2 cloves of garlic, pinch of salt. Mix with a pestle in a mortar.

* For the pepper paste: 1tbsp minced,
dried red peppers (1tbsp of good red curry paste can be used as a substitute for this and the kroeung).

* Fresh or tinned coconut cream: about half the volume of a cooking pot

* Noni leaf (spinach or outer cabbage leaves can be used instead): about two-thirds the volume of cooking pot

* 1tbsp fish sauce

* 1tsp salt

* 1tbsp sugar (preferably palm)

* 1 egg

* 80g sliced firm white fish (prawns also work)

Making your Amok

Place the lemongrass and red pepper paste (or red curry paste) in a bowl and combine with the salt, fish oil and sugar.

Add coconut cream (half the volume of your cooking pot; we use half a dried coconut shell).

Mix all of the above and season to taste. Blend in a beaten egg, then add the fish.

Fill the cooking pot half full with leafy green vegetables then top with the amok mixture. Leave a couple of tablespoons of residue for adding later.

Place the container in a steamer for about 30 minutes, after which it should start to firm to a souffle texture. Top with the residue, then continue steaming for another 10-15 minutes until the amok has set and absorbed most of the liquid (the vegetables often produce quite a bit of water).

Before serving, drizzle your amok with coconut cream and top with finely sliced red pepper.

Essentials

Inside Asia offers 13-night Karma Cambodia, a tailored itinerary that heads from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap via Battambang, Kep and Koh Kong province. Based on two people sharing, the trip costs from £2,800 per person and includes accommodation, guided transfers, transport between destinations, domestic flights, cultural experiences and some meals. International flights not included.

Read more of Southeast Asia’s culinary tales from our cover story.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)