‘Fish Amok’ is not a verbally economical headline trailing the story of a school of barracuda gone berserk, but the best known of Cambodia’s national dishes. You can also make Amok with chicken, pork or tofu for a vegetarian version, but fish is the most common and can be found everywhere from market stalls to the menus of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants. It will also be the centrepiece of your day on the Cambodia Cooking Class run by chef Heng of Frizz Restaurant [a must for any foodie visitor] where you’ll make not only the ‘kroeung’ [the paste at the heart of the dish] from scratch, but even the banana leaf bowls in which to cook it. It seems that others are catching on to foodie tourists’ desire to roll up their sleeves, with a couple of new courses now appearing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but it would be difficult to beat this, the original, for value – US$20 buys you a day of tuition in the rooftop classroom, all ingredients [and therefore ultimately all your food] and the market visit I described elsewhere. To say nothing of the fact that Heng is a thoroughly affable and very patient teacher. You’ll also get a recipe booklet to take home at the end of the day, though I’d recommend making your own notes too as you go.
If you’re going to do this on a regular basis you might want to consider investing in a serious pestle and mortar, perhaps whilst in the country – suitcase permitting. The ones we used had deep wooden bowls [at least 20cm] and big wooden pestles with the weight and heft of a squat baseball bat. My typically puny English version, which in any case normally sits on a shelf looking pretty and holding the garlic, needed three times the effort produce a smooth paste. And whilst you could feasibly steam your Amok in small ceramic bowls you really should go to the effort of making the traditional banana leaf cups. All in all something of a labour of love, but then if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Isn’t it?
Like traditional dishes everywhere you can find any number of variations to the recipe. The good people at Romdeng Restaurant produce a pared down, simple version with minimal spicing. Whilst Luu Meng of Malis, as you might expect from this rising star of Cambodian cuisine who recently played host to Gordon Ramsey, finesses his dish with smoked fish roes. Prahok [a paste of matured, fermented fish] is often included, but we didn’t use it on the day and I have not included it here as you’ll not find it easy to come by outside of Cambodia. It’s also something of an acquired taste if you haven’t grown up eating it at every meal.
The quantities I’ve given here are for one portion of Amok, simply scale as required.
For the kroeung
- 1.5 cm galangal, peeled and chopped
- A thumbnail sized piece of kaffir lime zest
- 2 cm fresh turmeric root, peeled [or half a teaspoon of powdered turmeric]
- 1 clove garlic
- Half a small shallot
- 4 cm of the thinner parts of lemongrass stalks, finely sliced
- 1 or 2 mild red chillies [to taste] finely minced
- A pinch of salt
For the rest
- 120 g firm fleshed fish such as cod, sliced or diced as you prefer
- 70 ml coconut milk
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- ¼ tsp shrimp paste
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 dsp roughly crushed roasted peanuts
- 1 tbsp coconut cream
- Red chilli and kaffir lime leaf finely sliced to garnish
For the bowls
- Enough banana leaf to make 2 x 25cm circles for each bowl
- Cocktail sticks or toothpicks, cut in half
Begin by pounding the lime zest and galangal until breaking down. Next add the lemongrass and pound again. Then add all the other kroeung ingredients and pound until you have a smooth, thick paste. As you can see there is much pounding to be done, but this can be very therapeutic and with the right kit should take no more than about ten to fifteen minutes. Once smooth add the finely minced chilli and stir to incorporate.
In a separate bowl mash the shrimp paste into the coconut milk until dissolved, then add the fish sauce, egg yolk and peanuts. Combine this mixture with the kroeung and the fish and mix well. Pour the resulting mixture into your banana leaf cup, top with the coconut cream, and place in a steamer for twenty minutes. The end result should still be moist but slightly set by the egg, like a wobbly, spicy, fishy custard, yet infinitely more pleasant than that description sounds! Serve with plain boiled rice, and garnish the Amok with finely sliced chilli and kaffir lime leaf.
To make the banana leaf bowls
I managed to buy banana leaves at a local Thai mini market and they can usually be found without too much hassle. Wash and dry the leaves. For each bowl cut two circles about 25cm in diameter – a saucepan lid and a craft knife will come in handy.
You need to soften the leaves slightly which can be done by blanching in boiling water. Alternatively [Heng’s way] light a gas ring and using tongs lay on a leaf circle, quickly flip over, and remove. You’ll see the leaves soften almost instantly, and they should not burn or colour. Lay one disc on another, placing the rough sides of the leaves together, shiny surfaces facing out. Fold up the sides to make a pleat in four or five places, securing each pleat with a half cocktail stick ‘pin’, to make a cup shape. This can take a bit of practice, so the first time you try it you might want to arm yourself with a few extra leaf circles.
The – frankly poor – example pictured below [my own] is clearly not a masterpiece of the genre, but is offered merely as a visual example of the techniques described!