Cambodian Cuisine — Amok Trei, Steamed Fish Curry Custard

Cambodia is one of the Southeast Asian nations that, along with Laos and Burma, gets overshadowed in world culinary consciousness by its more well-known neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.  One of the most rewarding consequences of producing The World Cup of Food has been the opportunity to explore the cuisines of these overlooked areas more closely, and we eagerly anticipated the chance to dive into Cambodian cuisine.

Cambodia quick facts:

  • Capital: Phnom Penh
  • Population: 14,952,665
  • Notable Cambodians: singer Sinn Sisamouth.

Cambodian food has some very important common elements with its neighbors, like the use of rice noodles, freshwater fish from the Mekong River system, and piling on the fresh herbs.  While it is important elsewhere in the region as well, no culture values rice quite like the Cambodians do.  In the Khmer language (the native tongue of the Cambodians) there are dozens of words that exist specifically to describe rice, and a meal eaten without the grain is the exception.  Also unique among world cuisines to Cambodia is the heavy use of a fermented fish paste called prahok, and the funky, pungent flavor is one of the identifying characteristics of a Cambodian dish.

Wherever we looked, our sources indicated that one of the most popular dishes in Cambodia and most sought-after by visitors is the steamed fish curry custard amok trei (recipe follows).  Locally caught whitefish, coconut milk, curry paste, and of course a little prahok is steamed in a banana leaf until the coconut milk sets like a custard.  Prahok wasn’t available anywhere we looked locally, but a few sources recommend the shrimp paste kapǐ as a viable alternative, which we were able to find at our local Southeast Asian market, Hong Phat in Lacey, Washington.

Amok trei

adapted from Marie Claire magazine (sometimes good recipes come from unexpected places)

SERVES TWO

  • 2 banana leaves, thawed (banana leaves are available frozen in many Asian and Mexican groceries in the United States)
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 pound cod filet, cut into bite-sized pieces (a Cambodian cook might use Mekong river catfish, but in the Northwest we have Alaskan cod)
  • 8 red Thai chilies, deseeded and minced
  • 8 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 inch piece galangal, peeled and minced
  • 2 sticks lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbs kapǐ, fermented shrimp paste

First thing first, we needed to make a Khmer curry paste.  Most sources indicated that Khmer curry paste should contain turmeric.  We forgot to add turmeric.

Turmeric issues aside, we loaded our trusty Korean porcelain mortar with the Thai chilies, garlic, galangal root (available at many supermarkets and all Asian groceries), lemongrass, kaffir lime, and shrimp paste:

curryingredients
The shrimp paste can be seen toward the bottom of the image. Some might describe its smell as “not unlike a baby’s diaper.”

Kaffir lime leaves, as soon as they are sliced, release a pungent aroma similar to a citronella candle.  Between that, the shrimp paste, galangal, chiles, and garlic, we could easily tell by smell that we were making food from a land far, far away.

After about ten minutes of pounding, grinding, and scraping with our wooden pestle, the ingredients were pulverized into a rough paste:

currypaste

Not surprisingly, the distinctive odor of our Khmer curry was even more pervasive after the mortar and pestle treatment.

Next we needed to construct our steaming vessels.  Amok trei is cooked in cups made of pinned-together banana leaves which subtly impart their flavor and a little color into the finished dish.  Our banana leaves came in a package of about a dozen, so all but two were put in the freezer for later use.  To make the leaves pliable enough to shape, we first needed to blanch them in boiling water for a few seconds.  This was most easily done by dipping one end in the boiling water, flipping the leaf around, and repeating:

blanchingbananaleaf

Using kitchen scissors, we trimmed the leaves into circles of a diameter of about twelve inches, then the outer four inches of each leaf was folded over itself all around the edge and pinned together using round toothpicks (we figured the flat kind might be too fragile to hold up):

bananacups

In the end we wanted a bowl of about four inches in diameter across the bottom.

Since the bowls, once filled, needed to be steamed, we needed a steamer large enough to accommodate them.  We don’t have any such vessel on hand, so we rigged one together out of a deep-sided roasting pan with a lid and some ramekins:

steamerrig
Pro tip: we use this same setup to steam crab legs.

Next we put the fish pieces in the bottom of the cups:

fishincups
Also, another angle of the bowl construction.

We mixed our Khmer curry paste with the can of coconut milk and beaten eggs (no salt or pepper was used since the shrimp paste and chilies cover both needs), then poured the mixture over the fish to cover:

curryincups

The steamer rig was filled with about an inch of water and brought to a simmer, then loaded with the curry cups:

cupsinsteamer

We put the lid on the roasting pan and maintained a simmer on the stove.  After fifteen minutes we check the progress of our amok and found that the banana leaf cups had wilted and sagged slightly but were holding up just fine, with no evidence of leaking:

steamedcups

Overall, our amok trei was steamed for about forty-five minutes until the curry had set to a texture like a loose custard:

amoktreicustardy

As recommended in the Marie Claire recipe, we served the amok trei alongside thick slices of cucumber:

amoktreionplate

Our worst fear when preparing this dish was that the funky flavor of the shrimp paste would overpower all our senses and dominate the flavor profile.  While the shrimp paste’s impact on the finished dish was definitely strong, the kaffir lime leaves and chilies left their impressions as well.  As for the fish, a stronger flavor like catfish would probably have been better suited for this dish.  Alaskan cod is a fine fish, of course, but its delicate flavor is better suited to other preparations that don’t overpower it so much.

It is easy to see why Cambodian food is so loved by the locals but greeted with skepticism internationally.  It took a leap of faith to continue with the shrimp paste once we opened the jar, it’s is-this-actually-OK-to-eat smell overtaking our kitchen immediately.  It was also the gift that kept on giving when we returned to rinse off the spoon that was used to measure out the shrimp paste, its funky odor being reignited by the water’s agitation.  All that said, it is no surprise that, having been raised on the stuff, Cambodians come to miss the flavors of home when they are away for extended periods.

Of course a Cambodian reader could likely pick apart the flaws in our preparation and recipe of amok trei (You didn’t use turmeric!  Thai chilies? No way!), but we still feel that we were able to better enhance our understanding of Cambodian culture and cuisine considerably, coming in having almost no understanding of either.  It may be a stretch, but if our understanding of witch society is accurate, amok is a hit there as well:

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