Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cambodian Fish Amok

In Khmer language called Amok Trei (ha mok trey), is an exotic and yet fragrant dish base on a Cambodian paste called ‘kroeung’ and combine with fresh thick coconut milk, shredded slek nhor or noni (morinda citrifolia) leaves, eggs, fish sauce, sugar, and a little prahok (fermented fish paste).

About the image above: variety of fish that may available in the Cambodian market and use in amok cooking, these catches are from the Tonle Saap Lake.

About the image above: fishes were available during the Khmer Empire near Angkor complex

About the image above: fish vendor in one of local market in Kampong Thom

There are two ways to prepare fish amok: first it called amok teuk; in this way the ingredients will be cooked in a wok or sauté pan following the ingredient listed and finished with the seasonings and eggs to give soft texture. This method usually is now can found in most of restaurants in busy tourist destinations throughout the country, some are presented on the banana cups or coconut shell with camouflage of the coconut milk and fresh herb as garnish on top.

About the image above: spices and herb mixture called kroeung; the main spices for the amok fish that give the exotic aromas to the dish. The mixture consist of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, ginger, shallot, garlic, rizhome, kaffir lime leaf and zest.

The second method is called amok chouk; this is considered the most authentic way to cook the amok by gently steaming either in bamboo or metal steamer. This method will give a soft and smooth texture of custard-curry-mixture over sliced fresh water fish contain in the ingredients. This steaming method also will give and offer a special aroma of the herb and spices include to this dish. Deeply rich and amazing flavor will smell when the dish arrives to your table with additional presentation from the banana leaf cups or young coconut shell. You will have no world to say rather than……… yummy.

About the image above: Fish amok serves on a white china porcelain cups

About the image above: Style of fish amok served by one of restaurant in Pub Street, Siem Reap

Most of the fresh water fishes for amok catches either from Mekong River or Tonle Saap Lake (or if you are away from Cambodia you may substitute the South East Asian fishes to the fish available in your areas).  Before steaming, the mixture will be placed in banana leaf cups, ramekin cups, coconut shell or other shallow cup that you wish. You might need to garnish a bit on top of the cup to give color with some shredded chilies and kaffir lime leaves. The fish amok is consider one of the most favorite amongst other authentic dishes of Cambodia. 

About the image above: "Steaming" cooking method from the ancient day of Angkorian era
The image appeared on Bayon Temple wall

The technique of steaming food has been discovered long back before the Angkor era. The relief of the carvings on the wall of Bayon Temple shows the ways on how people here prepared their food for their family, for their kings and queens and preparing food for the offering for their Gods and Goddesses using different process of cooking including ancient method of steaming.

About the image above: Fish amok served in fresh coconut shell. Look elegant, clean and  presentable

About the image above: Fish amok presented in one of the five stars hotel in Siem Reap. The presentation looks very clean and appetizing.

I am a Chef and I have been cooking here in Cambodia for the past four years on this my second visit to Angkor. I have searched and tried many varieties and styles of this fish amok. I cooked this fish amok many times. And yet I always discovered something new and more wonder of this beautiful dish. The ingredients of the fish amok consist of:

1. The ingredients that will give the name to the amok is fish (or others ingredients if you wish to). Here the fishes to be in the amok are from either sea or fresh water: This is to give the character name to this Fish Amok. In Cambodia you can have catches from fresh water like goby fish, serpent head fish, bar fish, etc. Catches from the sea are red snapper, sea bass, grouper, kingfish, mahi mahi, etc. Even you can explore for wider variety of ingredients to salmon, barramundi, cod fish or other fishes that available in your area. The fish usually sliced or cut into cube.

2. The Amok Kroeung
The key to the exotic flavors and aromas of this amok is the kroeung – herb and spices paste made from lot of amounts of fine shredded young stalks of lemongrass, fresh kaffir lime leaves and zest, fresh young turmeric, fresh galangal, white chinese key (rizhome), cloves garlic and baby shallot. These ingredients are supplemented by either or a combination – dried red chili, grilled shrimp paste or fermented fish (prahok). These might be pounded into a paste with key spices, herb and seasonings.

These are the ingredients of this paste:

200 grams chopped lemongrass stalks (only the young part)
100 grams chopped galangal
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh turmeric
1 tablespoon chopped rhizome (Chinese key)
100 grams chopped garlic
100 grams chopped shallots
6 pieces dried red chilies

Using a food processor or chopper machine, turn these ingredients to a paste without adding any liquid. Keep this paste for later use, probably in fridges to maintain the quality.

If you are in the country side you may have to do this paste, but if you stay in the city, the paste available in every corner of the market both freshly made or packed dry powder. You can use both of these mixtures.

About the image above: Fish amok station at Apsara Terrace, Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap. The hotel serves the fish amok as part of the special feature of the evening

About this image above: An amok chef in Khmer outfit preparing fish amok

3. Thickening or custard agent.
To thicken the amok during steaming you need to add egg and combine with coconut milk. This is will give a smooth texture of the amok. The egg also will hold the herb and spices aromas into the dish and infused them to the fish.

4. Seasonings
Every dish that cooked needs seasoning as well as our fish amok. The seasoning the amok is just three ingredients: some salt, palm sugar and fish sauce. Salt will give a hint of saltiness, the palm sugar will create a subtle sweetness and the fish sauce will give a deeper sense of both tastes and awaken the aroma of the herb and spices in it.

5. Cups. Cups or Cups
To hold the amok need cups. The cup made of banana leaf or you can also utilize your cup at home, if you ramekin or is you wish to serve your favorite fish amok in young coconut shell also good idea.

For the banana cup will look more traditional if the banana leaf available at your place. For this type of cups you may need a bunch of the leaf and you also need wet cloth to wipe the leaves, boiling water and tooth picks or bamboo sticks.

About the image above: Amok menu from Restaurant Le Grand Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor

To prepare the cups, firstly you need to clean the leaves with the wet cloth and then dip the leaves into the boiling water to soften the leaves and do not crack when the leaves are being shaped.

The shape of the cup may vary, you can make square or round, if you wish to make square cups, cut the leaves to rectangular. And then you will take two pieces leaves and stick together to form the cup by press in every corner then pinning together with the tooth picks or bamboo sticks. Continue the sequence to the other corner of the cup.

6. Garnish for the fish amok.
The garnish will give better appearance of the fish amok. You can create your own garnish. For some reasons, restaurants in Cambodia used the ingredients bellow to garnish the fish amok.

Coconut milk
Red chili, shredded into strips
Lime leaves or morinda leaves, shredded into strips

  1. Red chili will look amazing on yellowish dish
  2. Coconut milk will give softer appearance to the dish
  3. Shredded leaves will give the fresh look to the dish
  4. All of the ingredients above includes to the amok so will not change the taste of the fish amok

7. Fish amok presentation
Most of the household will serve fish amok as it is without many artificial touches. It may serve with rice or combine with other kind of food. Some family cooks this fish amok during Khmer New Year celebration of specially offered to the monks.

Recipe for fish amok for 5 servings

800 grams sliced fish fillets
½ recipe of kroeung amok fish mix
¼ cup shredded nhor leaves (morinda citriforlia)

Banana Leaf Cups
10-15 banana cups

Kroeung Amok Fish
200 grams chopped lemongrass stalks
100 grams chopped galangal
2 tablespoons turmeric powder
1 tablespoon chopped rhizome (Chinese key)
100 grams chopped garlic
100 grams chopped shallots
6 pieces dried red chilies

1 tablespoons fish sauce
¼ cup palm sugar
½ cup thick coconut milk

2 eggs
½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoons thick coconut milk
1/3 piece red chili, shredded into strips
1 piece lime leaves or morinda leaves, shredded into strips

For the kroeung amok fish mix: process all ingredients in the blender until it smooth. Set aside.

To prepare and cook the amok fish: in a clean bowl, combine all of the ingredients such as kroeung for amok fish mix, shredded morinda leaves, seasonings, sliced fish, thickenings and the vegetables. Mix well and keep aside to rest at least 3-4 minutes. This is importance to let the spices and herb in the mixture releases their aromas. Meanwhile, prepare the steamer on high steam. Start filling the cups with the fish mixture and steam in for 8-12 minutes or until the fish is set as a soft custard.

To serve the fish amok: remove the cups from the steamer. Spoon the coconut milk over the filling and garnish with the red chilies and kaffir lime leaves strips as shown. Serve immediately while still hot with steamed rice.

About the image above: Household prepared the tradition of the fish amok in square banana leaf cups Look very nice and stimulate of the palate!

How to eat amok fish
If you do not want your hand a bit dirty, you will use fork and spoon of course. Together with warm steamed rice on a plate. Or if you really would go a bit further with this experience, clean your hands and use hand to enjoy the amok fish on plate. Spoon a bit of steamed rice and place a spoonful of amok fish over the rice, then start mixing a bit of rice and amok fish just before you put them to your mouth. Do not rush because you are hungry; chew the rice and the fish amok in your mouth. Let the taste, aromas, flavors and texture of the amok fish traveling into your senses, play wind your mind and give nutrient to your soul. And continuously let it happen until the last spoon of the dish. After eating, do not rush to get up and wash hands, let settle about 2-3 minutes to enjoy the last flagrant smell of the amok. This experience will last forever and surely you will once again want to enjoy it next time.

 It is a privilege of wealth cast when you cook fish amok in Cambodian culture on the earlier stage. Traditionally    fish amok is a national dish and usually appear during the Khmer New Year together with chicken curry since more than 2550 years ago.

Nowadays in the more modern home in Cambodia even they still maintain this tradition. But the variation of the dish has been widened, not just only fish amok but more choices tastes and variations.

Tips how to choose good fish for amok:
  1. The fresher the fish the better, probably life fish if available.
  2. Fish should has no bone in it flesh
  3. Easy to cut or slice
  4. Careful with the scale of the fish
  5. Oily fish will give better texture
Enjoy your discovery in Cambodia. 

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