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Running Amok for Fish Amok

CAMBODIA | Friday, 26 September 2014 | Views [4986]

The bowl is steaming hot. I deeply inhale the lemongrass and galangal and immediately start salivating. 

And as soon as I put a spoonful in my mouth, my tastebuds "rush into a frenzy" - the original Malay meaning of the word "amok". 

I spent a month in Siem Reap earlier this year, and one of my goals was to sample as many fish amoks as I could find. 

Want a frenzy in your mouth but not yet able to get yourself to Cambodia? I've combined the recipes of my two favourite amoks - from the cooking schools of The RiverGarden Hotel and Sojourn Boutique Villas - into a bowl of deliciousness even I can replicate at home. And when you feel the need to taste amok with local ingredients, I recommend both these hotels, their stand-out restaurants, and their cooking classes! 

The national dish from the nation's lifeblood 

Amok is the national dish of Cambodia. The most popular form is with fish, and the fish is all from the Tonle Sap lake.  

The Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of Cambodia, and is Southeast Asia's largest lake. It grows to 10,000 square kilometers and 14 meters depth during the monsoon season, yet shrinks to just 3,000 square kilometers and two meters depth during the dry season. 

The Tonle Sap supplies fresh water and food to the three million people who live around and on it (visit a floating village or the stilted houses!). There are over 300 species of fish swimming within it and half of the fish consumed in Cambodia come from it. Without this majestic lake (and the prowess of the ancient Khmer hydraulic engineers), Angkor could not have become the largest pre-industrial city in the world. 

And without the Tonle Sap, we would not have fish amok.  

Translating authentic amok

Amok actually refers to the action of steaming, but most home cooks (including Cambodian) don't have the kitchen facilities to steam this dish. Local Cambodians prefer the stir-fry then boil technique and taste. I agree, and this is easier to replicate outside Cambodia too. The traditional steamed method brings a drier somewhat mousse-y dish, and the recipe below a soupier texture. 

Fish amok is the original, but snails (amok chouk), chicken and, lately, tofu, are all variations. 

Amok's cousins are Thai green curry and otak otak in Malaysia and Indonesia.  What makes amok different is the addition of a bitter green leaf called slok ngor and the particular blend of spices. 

If you're in Cambodia, pick up some kroeung (Khmer spice paste) to take home to turn into amok. It contains krachai (a rhizome resembling ginger), galangal, garlic and shallots. But you can create a very delicious alternative with ingredients you should be able to find in most Asian grocery stores. 

Chili or not to chili

Surprisingly, there is no consensus on whether amok should be spicy. As a worshiper of the chili, I say "go spicy!". But the choice is up to you, and you could always serve chili peppers on the side so people can adjust the heat to their preference.  

Dried chili is more authentic than fresh, but use whatever you can find. 

And really, won't your tastebuds rush into more of a frenzy if you chili up your amok? 

Making fish amok at home (serves 2)

This is a combination of the recipes from the cooking classes at The RiverGarden Hotel and Sojourn Boutique Villas. It serves two, and you should feel free to adjust the proportions to your own personal preferences. I've also indicated several substitutions if you're having trouble finding ingredients. 

  • Small handful of bitter greens (the leaf of the noni tree, slok ngor, i.e. Morinda citriflora, is traditional; but you can substitute Chinese broccoli/kale, spinach, or really any green you like from the Asian grocery)
  • 3 or 4 lime leaves (see note * below)
  • 3 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves and base removed
  • a baby-finger-sized piece of galangal, peeled (try not to substitute this one as galangal really makes the dish stand out; but if you can't find galangal, use fresh ginger)
  • a slightly smaller piece of turmeric, peeled (fresh is lovely, but you can substitute 1 1/2 tsp dried)
  • optional: 4 to 6 dried chili peppers, soaked in water, stems removed (substitute fresh chili) 
  • 1 shallot, peeled 
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled 
  • 1 to 2 tsp sugar (ideally palm sugar)
  • 1/2 tsp fish (e.g. anchovy) or shrimp paste
  • 1 egg, beaten 
  • approx 2 tsp fish sauce, adjust to your desired level of saltiness 
  • 1 tbsp cooking oil
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream (or thick coconut milk), preferably fresh
  • 400 g fish, in large chunks (bar fish is traditional, but any firm, white, non-bony fish will do, like sole)
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup water 

1. Prep your greens

Cut or tear out the spines of the lime leaves and, if necessary, of the bitter greens you've chosen. Roll them up (separately) and then chop into strips about half a centimeter in width. Use the lime leaves in step 2 and the bitter greens just before serving.

2. Make a paste  

If you're using a food processor: toss your aromatics (strips of lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chili peppers, shallot, garlic) in the machine and process until they become a paste. Stir in the sugar and fish paste. 

If you're using a mortar and pestle: finely chop the lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chili peppers, and shallot; grate the garlic with a microplane. Pound them with the strips of lime leaves until a paste forms. Stir in the sugar and fish paste. 

You can use this paste right away, but if you set it aside for an hour or so the flavours make even more magic. 

3.  Prep your emulsifier 

Beat the egg, add the fish sauce and a couple teaspoons of your paste. This will help emulsify your amok and give it a silkier texture.  

4.  Start cooking

Heat a wok, pot or a large deep frying pan over medium heat. Add the cooking oil. Once hot, add the remaining paste and stir. After a minute or two, your kitchen will fill with a deliciously intense smell.  

Once this happens, stir in half the coconut cream. When it boils, add the fish. After a minute or two, add the remaining coconut cream and the egg mixture and stir. Thin to desired texture with the chicken stock and water. Heat on low until the fish is cooked through. 

5. Serve

Off the heat, add the strips of ngor or bitter greens. Serve piping hot in individual bowls, with rice on the side.   

*A note on lime leaves: anyone who is a fan of Southeast Asian cuisine is a fan of lime leaves and their heady fragrance which is infused into many Thai, Lao, and Cambodian dishes. These limes are commonly referred to as "kaffir" limes. 

But did you know that "kaffir" is a racist slur? In South Africa, it is a synonym for the N-word, and in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia it is negative word for non-Muslims. 

There's a campaign on Twitter to use the name "Makrut limes" (which is what they're often called in Southeast Asia anyway). Most people will know exactly what you mean if you just say "lime leaves" too. 

Make the change! 

About the Author 

Johanna Read is a travel and food writer and photographer.  While she calls Canada home, she spends much of the year abroad researching wonderful things to share with her readers. She spent the Canadian winter of 2013-14 in Southeast Asia, is just back from China, and is soon off to Ecuador and Peru. You can find links to her writing, photography and social media at www.TravelEater.net

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Tags: amok, cambodia, cooking, cooking class, cooking class, fish, hotel, recipe, siem reap, travel

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