Sat crossed legged at a local home, I am presented with a small banana leaf basket, inside which is a soft creamy food, fresh in smell and soft in texture. It’s Amoke Trei, or fish amok, and if anything can be said to be the national dish of Cambodia, this is it. Khmer food is full of delightful flavours that glimmer on the tongue, but this wonderful dish is a real highlight, and unlike the noodle and soft buns that are also prolific on the streets, truly unique to the area.
Amok is made with filleted freshwater fish, usually catfish or snakehead fish. My first taste of the dish was in Siam Reap, meaning that the fish was sourced from the nearby Tonle Sap, the vast lake nearby that was once home to over a million people on its 1600 km square surface, and still houses many tens of thousands.
Chopped into bite size pieces it is covered in a thick coconut sauce with eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar it is seasoned with kroeung, a curry paste concoction of freshly pounded spices, including lemongrass, tumeric, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic, shallots and chillies. The lime adds a fresh zinginess whereas the tumeric is a more robust flavour. Steamed in and served in a banana leaf parcel, it is less curry in terms of its liquid substance, and more coated and creamy. It’s subtly spicey, filling your mouth slowly with its complex and delicate flavours.
On my journey through Cambodia I try the same dish at a roadside cafe near the border with Thailand, just past Poipet. It’s more liquid, likely cooked in a wok to get this consistency. The same is true of a local stall near Angkor Wat, where the busy turnover of custsomers no doubt makes it tough to allow the time for steaming and simmering. That said, they were still delicious, a testament to the flavours and the well tested combination.
The culinary philistine in me would immediately compare it to korma, but that would be to hone in solely on the coconut, when it is so much more than that. Cambodian food isn’t spicy, unlike that of some of its neighbours, and this means that far from being overpowered, every flavour is absorbed and tasted. Determined to get to grips with that pestle and mortar, the dish seems simple and is on my list to cook when I go home. Whether fresh rather than supermarket ingredients, a recipe and skill no doubt passed down through the family, and an evening crossed legged on the floor as the breeze ruffled my hair and the lush verdant scent of the countryside swept across can be replicated is another matter.
Francesca Baker is a freelance writer currently wandering the world with her eyes wide open and scribbling about. Partial to music, reading, culture, walking, cycling, travel, wine, off kilter events, smiling, and life, you can read her musings here and follow her here.