Cambodia is really coming into its own as a travel destination and, in the case of the capital city of Phnom Penh, a business destination for international companies as well. The Southeast Asian country has moved on from its dark days in the late 1970s under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Now, the local hospitality, awe-inspiring temples of Angkor, unspoiled beaches of Sihanoukville and bustling food scene are taking center stage for this bright, emerging destination.
Cambodia’s food traditions borrow dashes of flavor from both Thailand and Vietnam, and you’ll find spicy hotpot noodles at the night markets, as well as bai sach chrouk (pork and rice) with cucumbers, peppers and vinegar for breakfast and lap khmer (a chili-sprinkled sliced beef salad) on many a lunch and dinner menu. There’s also a sweet, flaky French colonial influence to the bakeries, and you’ll still encounter the occasional fried tarantula in the rural provinces.
Cambodia’s most famous dish, however, is fish amok. This slightly sweet curry is always presented in a banana leaf bowl, and it has more of a custard consistency thanks to a signature steaming step in preparation. You’ll find it on menus around the nation in every manner of restaurant, from luxury to low-end, and the subtle flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime go perfectly with a flaky white fish.
“The banana leaves are used as a bowl, but in a traditional way, they are also used to steam the fish.”
“Our recipe is taken straight out of the cookbook From Spiders to Water Lilies: Creative Cambodian Cooking With Friends,” offers chef Charlie Bernarie. He’s manning the kitchen at the Secret Garden Resort, located on Otres Beach just outside of the coastal town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Bernarie hails from the western Highlands of Scotland originally, but laughs that he “washed ashore while traveling and never left.” We sat down facing a gorgeous stretch of Otres Beach, famous among backpackers and luxury travelers alike, to discuss amok.
“From Spiders to Water Lilies is really the source for all classic Cambodian recipes,” he says. “Because of the war, they lost their recorded history for cooking, and this is the new generation’s guideline on Cambodian cuisine.” The cookbook he’s referring to was published in conjunction with Mith Samlanh, a nonprofit organization that runs the famous Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh and cares for nearly 2,000 homeless Cambodian children.
“There’s not a lot in an amok,” Bernarie continues. “Lemongrass and lime leaves…fish sauce, palm sugar, turmeric paste, and chilies. You make a paste of all the spices. You cook the meat in a pan, add coconut cream and most places thicken it with coconut powder, but I like to use an egg.”
Today, you’ll find chicken or pork as an option on most menus, but traditionally, amok is made with a fine, flaky white fish. “The banana leaves are used as a bowl, but in a traditional way, they are also used to steam the fish. We don’t do this at Secret Garden,” he admits, “because it takes too long. But at home, a Cambodian would steam the fish inside the leaves in the sauce for 20 minutes, until the consistency is that of custard.”
Considering that you probably don’t have banana leaves on hand — nor the ability to fashion a steaming bowl out of them properly — here’s a great (slightly revised) recipe for amok curry. You can substitute chicken or even diced shrimp for the fish.
Serves 2-3 with a side of white rice
2 filets of white fish (think: halibut, mahimahi or cod)
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 tsp. olive oil or coconut oil
1 can of coconut milk
1 handful of chopped basil, mint and coriander
4 finely chopped sticks of lemongrass
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 kaffir lime leaves (*substitute 1 tsp. lime juice and ½ tsp. zest from one lime)
½ tsp. galangal, sliced (substitute 3/4 tsp. fresh ginger, sliced fine)
1 tsp. fresh turmeric or 1/2 tsp. dried turmeric
½ Tbsp. fish sauce
¼ tsp. palm sugar
Chili flakes or fresh chili to taste (optional)
- Dice the fish into large cubes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside in the fridge.
- Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, and add fresh herbs, lemongrass, kaffir lime, turmeric, garlic, galangal, and chilies if you want spice. Cook the spices on medium heat for 30 seconds to a minute, stirring regularly until flavors are combined.
- Add the coconut milk, fish sauce and palm sugar and bring to a medium, rolling simmer.
- Cook down for 10 minutes and add the fish cubes to the sauce. Gently poach for about 4 minutes with a lid on until cooked through.
- Serve in a bowl with a garnish of fresh herbs and a few dollops of fresh coconut cream.
*Editor’s note: If you are using lime juice and lime zest instead of kaffir leaves, then add this liquid when you add the coconut milk. Treat yourself to a delicious meal and try your luck in the Austrian online gambling house online roulette.