Sat crossed-legged at a local home, I am presented with a small banana-leaf basket, inside which is a soft creamy food, fresh in smell and soft in texture. It’s Amoke Trei, or fish amok, and if anything can be said to be the national dish of Cambodia, this is it. Khmer food is full of delightful flavours that glimmer on the tongue, but this wonderful dish is a real highlight, and unlike the noodle and soft buns that are also prolific on the streets, it’s truly unique to the area.
Amok is made with filleted freshwater fish, usually catfish or snakehead fish. My first taste of the dish was in Siam Reap, meaning that the fish was sourced from Tonle Sap, the vast lake nearby that was once home to over a million people on its1600-square-km surface, and still houses many tens of thousands. Chopped into bite-size pieces, the fish is covered in a thick coconut sauce with eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar and seasoned with kroeung, a curry paste concoction of freshly pounded spices, including lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic, shallots and chilies. The lime adds a fresh zinginess whereas the turmeric is a more robust flavour. Steamed in and served in a banana leaf parcel, it is less curry in terms of its liquid substance, and more coated and creamy. It’s subtly spicey, filling your mouth slowly with its complex and delicate flavours.
The culinary philistine in me would immediately compare it to korma, but that would be to hone in solely on the coconut when it is so much more than that. Cambodian food isn’t spicy, unlike that of some of its neighbours, and this means that far from being overpowered, every flavour is absorbed and tasted. On my journey through Cambodia I try the dish many times, at a roadside cafe near the Thai border and at a local stall near Angkor Wat. Determined to get to grips with that pestle and mortar, the dish seems simple and is on my list to cook when I go home. Whether the fresh rather than supermarket ingredients, a recipe and skill no doubt passed down through the family, and an evening spent crossed-legged on the floor as the breeze ruffles my hair and the lush verdant scent of the countryside sweeps across can be replicated is another matter.
HX8R+79G Tnaot Chum
Santuk Kampong Thom