Last updated on October 25th, 2017
What is Cambodian fish amok?
Amok Trei (Fish amok) is a (very) traditional Cambodian dish which of steamed curried fish. This is not fish curry: although there is some gravy, amok trei is nowhere near as liquid as fish curry. Fish amok is steamed, not boiled or baked. The fish is presented in a banana leaf cup in which it was cooked. Don’t eat the banana leaf! Do enjoy fish amok with copious amounts of rice!
If you ask Cambodians whether amok trei is our national dish, they would probably be a bit puzzled. It’s true that Cambodians do enjoy their fish. We are a country of voracious freshwater fish eaters, but there are plenty of other traditional Cambodian dishes that people enjoy.
How do you make fish amok?
Using my aunt’s standard recipe, I do make an adequate amok trei. And I’m sure that you can too, if you can get the right ingredients. It is a time consuming dish to cook because you have to do a fair amount of grinding (physically and figuratively).
The first step is to make a paste of kroeung. Kroeung can mean spices or ingredients in Khmer. A shortcut is to use a blender or a food mixer. That’s what I do because I don’t want to spend hours with a mortar and pestle. But it’s not the same, obviously manual grinding will taste better. As in many Cambodian recipes, there are no exact measurements. It depends on how you like your dish, and that will take a lot of experimenting.
First, grind the following “kroeung” into a thick paste with mortar and pestle: 2 tablespoons of galangal, 4-6 teaspoons of lemongrass (some people put less), 4-5 cloves of garlic (some people put much more), several zests of kaffir lime,1 teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of red dried chillies (not usually necessary).
The “trei” in amok is Cambodian freshwater fish (Mekong River and tributaries, and Tonle Sap Lake). Cambodians generally prefer freshwater fish to seafood, seafood to chicken, chicken to beef, beef to pork etc. If most parts of the world, farmed Tilapia is probably one of the easiest freshwater fish to find, and that’ll do but it’s not what we use in traditional fish amok.
The next step is to gradually stir the kroeung paste into about a cup of coconut milk. I like the skimmed version from a can. Not even my aunt makes her coconut milk from scratch… Add 1 beaten raw egg, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, 1 tablespoon of palm surgar and half a kilogram of small slices of Mekong catfish, goby or snakehead.
I have a really hard time making the banana cups as pictured above. Some are too big, others are too small. Most don’t look like cups at all… Once I even tried to make a leak proof banana leaf cup so that I could drink beer from it while making fish amok… It was a disaster!
The cups are used to cook amok trei and to give extra flavour. Pour the liquid fish mixture into the cups and top it with thinly cut nhor leaves (sleuk ngor). The fish mixture should be steamed in the cups. It’s best to keep a close eye on the cups. Steam it too little and you get coconut sashimi. Steam it too much and you get fish flan, or worse coconut flavoured fish cake.
Amok trei has a well balanced taste. None of the ingredients should be overpowering. Not too salty, not too coconutty. Definitely not chilli hot. You should be able to tell what ingredients and spices went into making the kroeung paste.
Fish amok makes or breaks the Cambodian cook
While it’s relatively easy to make fish amok, it is extremely difficult to make excellent fish amok. Fish amok is a make or break dish for those who take Cambodian cuisine seriously.
It is no trifling matter if you are trying to woo your sweetheart or a prospective spouse. I have an uncle and two aunts who make excellent traditional Cambodian fish amok. Many other members of my family do cook good fish amok, but it is not their strongest dish.
Fish amok also tells you a lot about restaurants that dare serve it. From runny gruel wrapped up in leaky banana leaves to hard overcooked brownies, few places manage to serve the real deal and hope to get away with it because visitors may be unfamiliar with the dish.
Cambodians who taste good fish amok at restaurants can only nod in appreciation for the hard work and skills that were put into producing such exquisite taste. It doesn’t mean that the roast chicken or the beef loc lac will be good too, but it’s already a good sign: this place is serious about food!
Looking for more fine food? Head to our post on Khmer cuisine and traditional Cambodian dishes.