Through years of practice, many Cambodian girls have mastered the sophisticated, delicate balance of tastes required to make Cambodian fish amok by the time they reach their teens.
But though perfecting the process may come from experience, the basic recipe and process isn’t terribly difficult, and even foreign novices can take control of this signature dish—especially if they have a little help.
As Saing Samien, a cooking instructor offering classes through Frizz restaurant on Sisowath Quay, says, “If you know how to make it, you can make it.”
Made from a red curry paste, the dish has a distinct curry flavor, but because it is steamed—not boiled like most curry dishes—amok manages a more understated spiciness than your average red curry soup. And the curry flavor infuses the flesh of the fish rather than remaining in the sauce.
The inclusion of egg in amok allows the dish to stiffen slightly upon steaming and also differentiates it from typical curries, which are far soupier.
In amok, most of the sauce coats the fish, so the flavor stays in each meaty bite.
Served neatly contained in a traditional banana leaf cup, amok makes a highly refined first impression.
But first things first. To make amok, one must start with the curry paste. A food processor can be used to combine ingredients, but it is more traditional—as well as rewarding—to use a mortar and pestle. Besides, there is nothing quite like taking in all the many colors of the ingredients before pounding them to bits.
Pounding the curry paste occurs in two stages. First, cut the skin of one dried chili—two if they are small—into small pieces. Add a small piece of kaffir lime peel, the same amount of galanga root and seven or eight black peppercorns. Thinly slice a lemongrass stalk from the root until the base of the stem where it starts to turn green. Combine it all in the mortar and pound away with the pestle. Remember, you are going for a paste, so you really can’t pound too hard.
Now you have the beginning of your paste. Next, throw in a section of shallot, one garlic clove, and a chunk of turmeric root or about one teaspoon of turmeric root powder—the turmeric is mainly for color, so be careful or it will stain your fingers. Pound some more and you have your paste.
Add a spoonful of peanuts and gently pound to turn the peanuts in tiny chunks rather than crushing them into powder.
Unlike a curry soup, amok is made in a very small bowl and care should be taken not to overpower it. So one stalk of lemongrass should suffice to flavor your whole dish.
Next, combine in a small bowl one-and-a-half spoonfuls of beaten egg, a smidge of shrimp paste to taste and two small spoonfuls of coconut milk. Season with a little salt and sugar.
Add this to your paste, which develops a sticky quality that will make it easier to spread and mix with the fish.
Slice about 400g of catfish or any meaty fish into thin pieces and put in the mixture.
Now is the time to make your banana leaf cup. Start by cleaning two banana leaves with a wet cloth. Then dip them in boiling water or hold them over a flame for a few seconds so they become soft and do not crack while you are handling them.
Cut out a circle of roughly 25 cm from the leaves, easily achieved by putting the lid of a cooking pot on top so you can trace its outline.
Pinch one edge of the circle with your thumbs and fold up, tucking the fold to one side and pinning it with tiny bamboo sticks or toothpicks. Repeat three times, until the cup has four sides.
Spoon the amok into your banana leaf cup, gently pressing down until it is up against the sides. Boil some coconut milk for a few minutes until it thickens, and pour a layer over the top just thick enough to cover the exposed surface.
Finally, sprinkle slivers of kaffir lime leaf and chili pepper skin for a festive look.
Steam for about 30 minutes or until firm but moist. Unfold and enjoy with rice.
The farm where Saing Samien grew up in Prey Veng province had all the necessary ingredients to make amok. That is, all the ingredients except peanuts.
“If you didn’t feel like biking 15 kilometers to go buy peanuts, then you didn’t have peanuts,” said the 34-year-old cooking instructor.
But it wasn’t a huge loss. Purists might even claim that peanuts ruin the dish.
You can easily leave out certain optional ingredients based on taste, according to Saing Samien. Some people don’t like shrimp paste, for instance, and leaving it out won’t alter the dish significantly. Lemongrass, on the other hand, is an absolute must.
When making amok in Phnom Penh, Saing Samien still remembers coming in from the farm while her mother was preparing amok with a steamer fashioned from bamboo with banana leaves over top.
“Ooh, I smelt something…very nice,” she remembers. “Very nice.”