Amok trei (or amok trey) is one of the national dishes of Cambodia. This delightful combination of fish with a rich spicy coconut-based custard, steamed in a creative cup made with banana leaves, is very unique and simply exquisite.
In South-East Asia, amok (ហហ្មុក in Khmer), mok (ຫມົກ in Lao) or ho mok (ห่อหมก in Thai) defines the process of steaming a curry in banana leaves, as well as the dish itself. Amok is very popular in Cambodia, as well as in Laos and Thailand.
There are two types of amok in Cambodia: one cooked with fish called amok trei and the other one cooked with rice paddy field snails called amok chouk. I may be French, but snails were not as appealing as fish to me, so I went with the safer bet. Beyond those traditional versions of amok, many variations have been developed over the years with chicken, prawns, scallops, and even tofu.
Through steaming, amok has a firm but moist texture. The banana leaves further enhance the flavor of the ingredients and give amok its unique aroma. Amok trey (fish amok) is one of the Khmer food items that really strikes a chord with tourists to Cambodia.
The Cambodian amok uses kroeung, which is similar to Thai curry paste, but without chili. Kroeung (Khmer: គ្រឿង) is actually a generic word for a number of Cambodian spice and herb pastes that are used to prepare many Khmer dishes, including amok.
The most commonly used ingredients in a traditional kroeung are lemongrass, magrut lime zest and leaves, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots, dried red chillies as well as various rhizomes such as fingerroot (also known as boesenbergia rotunda, Chinese keys, lesser galangal or Chinese ginger), kaempferia galanga (also known as kencur, aromatic ginger, sand ginger, cutcherry, or resurrection lily).
Kroeung is traditionally prepared by finely chopping the ingredients and pounding them together using a mortar and pestle.
There are two main types of kroeung: “individual kroeung” and “royal kroeung”. Individual kroeung defines the paste that may include additional ingredients specific to a dish, and are therefore used uniquely. The kroeung that is used in amok is, for example, considered an individual kroeung as it uses the red kroeung base but it favors kaffir lime leaves instead of turmeric. The recipe for royal kroeung is quite standardized though. Like with Thai curry pastes, there are various types of kroeung that can be differentiated by their colors, including yellow, green and red.
Amok trey is often eaten during the Water Festival. Bon Om Touk (បុណ្យអុំទូក), or the Cambodian Water Festival, is a festival that celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River, and which typically falls in November. It is a national festival but the biggest celebrations usually take place in the capital, Phnom Penh. It lasts for three days and marks the end of Cambodia’s rainy season, which coincides with the reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap River. This festival with a carnival atmosphere, attracts several million people each year, and is the occasion to participate in and attend boat races and concerts.
It is the most important festival of the country along with the Khmer New Year, which is typically celebrated in April.
During Bon Om Touk, more than 400 boats, pulled by trained oarsmen, take part in the annual boat race, which is the highlight of the Water Festival.
But this festival also marks a very unique natural phenomenon, as the Tonle Sap river reverses the flow of its current. Although there have been occurrences of waterways reversing their flow at one time in their history, including the Chicago river in 1900, it is probably the only one in the world which changes its flows twice a year.
Indeed, from November to May, the Tonle Sap river runs into the Mekong (southeast), but with the arrival of the monsoon rains toward October or November, water builds up in the main stream and pours into the Tonle Sap river, which contributes to the flow changing direction and flowing back into the Tonle Sap lake (northwest).
Definitely a reason to celebrate and eat this delicious amok trei. I prepared this Cambodian delicacy for my friends Thao and Stephane who were visiting Los Angeles with their kids for the weekend. Thao, who is originally from Vietnam, loved the dish, as it reminded her of similar dishes available in her native country.
- 2 red chilies
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped galangal
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass stalk
- Zest of ½ kaffir lime
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon shrimp paste
- 1 tablespoon fingerroot rhizome
- 2 shallots , peeled and chopped
- 3 tablespoons thinly julienned kaffir lime leaves
- 3 red hot pepper (or bell peppers), thinly julienned
- Make the kroeung by pounding all the paste ingredients in a mortar and pestle, working from the driest ingredient to the wettest.
- Clean the banana leaves with a wet cloth, then place them over a flame so they become soft and do not crack when folded.
Cut 10-inch (25cm) circles. Fold a square shape in the middle of the circle to form the bottom of the cup.
- Put two sides of the square at a time and attach them together with a toothpicks. Continue until all four sides of the banana leaf cup are held together.
- Line the banana cups with the noni or spinach leaves, then set aside.
In a pan, mix ½ cup (150ml) of coconut cream with the rice flour and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat, and set aside.
Fill a wok with 2 inches (5cm) of water and bring to the boil.
- In a large bowl, mix the remaining coconut cream, kroeung spice paste, palm sugar and fish sauce.
- Add the beaten egg, and the fish, and stir. Let marinate for 10 minutes.
- Place the banana cups in a bamboo steamer. Spoon the fish mixture into each banana cup.
- Place the steamer on top of the wok, cover and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes. Add boiling water to the wok if necessary.
- Remove the bamboo steamer. Top each of the banana cups with a tablespoon of the coconut and rice flour mixture, and garnish with the julienned chili and kaffir lime leaves.
- Return the bamboo steamer to the wok and continue cooking for 3 minutes. Serve with steamed white rice.