One of the main reasons that I decided to take the Khmer cooking class offered through Frizz Restaurant in Phnom Penh (http://www.frizz-restaurant.com, #67 Street 240, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; tel 855 (0)12-845525) was the opportunity to learn how to make Cambodia's national dish. Learning to make the amok was definitely the highlight of the class, at least for me. Fish amok is a sublime fish curry custard that is steamed in banana leaves. It's elegant, moist and flavorful.
As in many Southeast Asian dishes, a wet herb paste is the basis. Called kroeung in Khmer, it usually includes a combination of garlic, chilies of some kind, lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, shallots and other ingredients that are blended or processed into a thick paste.
Our instructor had us blend the ingredients the old-fashioned way -- with a mortar and pestle. While more time-consuming than a food processor, I found the task to be satisfying.
Then we added dried red chilies, which surprisingly, were not hot. The addition turned the yellow curry into a red one.
We added coconut milk, egg, fish suce and palm sugar to the kroeung.
The fish amok dishes uses a local river fish, usually one that is meaty. We used a firm-fleshed, large tiger fish that was cut into small pieces.
We put the fish in our individual cups with the red curry paste and added coconut milk.
As the tiger fish sat in this rich mixture, we turned our attention to making the banana leaf cups in which the fish would be steamed. Our instructor cut circles from the banana leaves,
flash-heated them over the electric griddle
and then showed us how to use toothpicks to fashion them into a cup that would hold the fish.
Of course, our instructor made it look quite easy. His cup was perfectly formed!
It took me a little while to master the cup, but I did.
The fish mixture is carefully poured into the banana leaf cup.
The filled up is placed in a steamer
covered with a lid
and steamed for about 15 minutes or so. A bit of coconut cream is poured on top. Then it's steamed further until the mixture is solid, but moist.
We took the fish amok out of the steamer and placed it on plates.
We turned the amok over and then wiped away the excess liquid with a napkin.
We added rice to the plate and served the dish.
By the time I made the fish amok, I had been thoroughly immersed in Khmer food. I had eaten my fair share of noodle dishes, curries and rice plates. The fish amok really stood head and shoulders above the rest of the Cambodian meals that I had had the pleasure of eating. It's an elegant, rich dish that should be savored. I certainly enjoyed it!
It took the longest to prepare of the four dishes we made. It was well worth the effort!
Reading about how fish amok is one thing. It's entirely another to actually watch it being prepared by a Khmer chef. I'm sharing two videos that are fun to watch. The first one is of fish amok being prepared by Heng, the instructor at Frizz Restaurant in Phnom Penh: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ25gs2rFCI
The second one features Heng, the chef instructor at Frizz. He explains more about Cambodia's national dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZBrgqxuLEI
Fish Amok - from Cambodia Cooking Class's Khmer Recipes Cookbook
5 dried red chilies (soaked, drained and chopped into a paste)
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsp galangal (cut small)
1 tsp. lemongrass (thinly sliced)
zest of 1/4 kaffir lime
1 tsp salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend to a thick paste. Alternative (and more traditionally) this could be created with a mortar and pestle.
Refrigerate any paste not needed for the amok. It can be used to add a little kick to soups and stir fried dishes.
Amok (Serves 4)
30 g young nhor leaves (no real substitute)
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp kaffir lime leaves
3 chili peppers
500 g fish (any meaty fish)
3/4 cup coconut cream
2 cups coconut milk
1 egg, beaten
Slice the fish thinly and set aside. Remove nhor from stem, slice the kaffir lime leaves and cayenne peppers thinly.
Stir the kroeung into 1 cup of coconut milk. When it has dissolved, add the egg, fish sauce and sliced fish. Then add the remaining coconut milk and mix well.
Make the banana leaf cups, then put in the nhor first and top with the fish mixture. (We didn't use nhor in our class.)
Steam for 15-20 minutes, then put the coconut cream on top and the thinly sliced kaffir leaves and cayenne peppers. Steam further until the mixture is solid, but still moist.
Making the banana cup
First clean the leaves with a wet cloth, then dip them into boiling water so they are soft and do not crack when being shaped.
Cut circles 25 cm in diameter and place two together. This is important as one leaf is not strong enough to hold the mixture.
Make the square in the middle of the circle. This will be the bottom of the cup.
Then, put a thumb on one right angle of the square and pull up 2 sides, tucking the fold, and pinning together with a tiny bamboo stick. (We used toothpicks.)
Move to the right and repeat.
Continue until all 4 sides of the cup are held together.