• Amok steaming in Battambang, Cambodia. Ruining amok — Cambodia’s National Dish. Copyright 2016 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Ruining Amok, The Corruption of Cambodia’s National Dish

Amok trei or fish amok is a steamed fish curry with a mousse-like texture. Travellers to Cambodia are told the must-try specialty when visiting the Kingdom is fish amok. But how do you know that what you’re eating is an authentic rendition of this national dish? And does it matter?

Ruining Amok, The Corruption of Cambodia’s National Dish

Most versions of amok trei or fish amok that you’ll find in restaurants are not what Cambodian chefs and especially older Cambodian cooks would consider a true amok. They tend to be a less sophisticated version — little more than a curry or soup — and often they’re not even made with the correct kroeung (curry/herb paste), let alone steamed and having rise like a soufflé, as they should be.

One food blogger who recently visited Cambodia was confused because she ate amok four times and it was different each time she tasted it. Sure there are regional variations, but when we looked at her photos, none of the dishes she had tried in any way resembled a genuine fish amok.

And this is true for most visitors. It’s very likely that visitors ordering amok will have a yellow fish curry placed in front of them. It probably won’t have the authentic kroeung as a base, but a store-bought paste (which can be stored indefinitely, rather than having to make it fresh every day), and it will taste like a mild Thai curry rather than a Cambodian curry.

The fish amok might be served in a banana leaf ‘cup’ or in a coconut shell to look like it might have been steamed, but it probably hasn’t been, because that ties up the chef who has to make it and watch it steam for a whole lot more than ten minutes.

God only knows what kind of fish is in it. That’s if, of course, you haven’t — heaven forbid — ordered chicken, tofu or a beef amok. None of these are amok according to Cambodian cuisine purists, such as the little old ladies from a family of old cooks, including a cook to a king, who we interviewed for our Cambodian cookbook.

On our travels over the years, I’ve consistently searched for the canonical recipes for the quintessential dishes of the places we’ve settled into. In many ways it’s a fool’s errand – albeit a continually fascinating one – for as soon as I believe I have identified the recipe, the essential ingredients, and how the dish should be made, I discover yet another recipe or I’m confronted with a new opinion on how a particular dish came about or should be cooked.

Obviously food travels as much as we do, dishes take a journey and change along the way, and as they do a cuisine evolves and transforms too. Still, there are dishes that seem to never change or change very little over time, and Cambodia, home to some of Southeast Asia’s oldest empires, also appears to be home to some of the region’s oldest dishes.

After we moved to South East Asia, before each new journey we’d go out and buy the best reviewed cookbook of the destination — not necessarily to cook from it right away, but rather to get an idea of the popular dishes and ingredients and cooking methods used.

We did just that after we moved to Cambodia. Here, amok or amok trei/trey (fish amok) to be precise is the dish that delivers the most diverse set of history, ingredients and cooking methods. A certain Cambodia guidebook even insists it’s ‘baked’. Thanks, Lonely Planet.

The difference in cooking methods — and no, baking isn’t one of them; most Cambodians don’t have ovens — can be attributed to socioeconomic circumstances. The poorer the people, the more likely the dish is to be just served as a fish curry, not steamed. But they will still call it amok because they’re using the same curry paste to make the dish.

We’ve visited houses in small villages around Siem Reap where they’ve prepared amok as a wet curry. After a long, hard day in the rice fields, it’s far easier to make a pot of curry, using the same ingredients (minus the eggs), than it is to follow what was traditionally a complex process with a steaming time of up to 45 minutes.

However, to make amok correctly — according to our four elderly Cambodian ladies in Battambang whose stories we are telling in our cookbook — involves not only making the kroeung at home, but massaging the paste into the fish for a substantial length of time (they maintain an hour of massaging is necessary), then setting it aside to marinate before putting the curried fish mixture in individual banana leaf ‘cups’ for steaming.

Our little old ladies, and dozens of other Cambodians we’ve interviewed argue that the fish must be snakehead fish and that the base of the cup must have a layer of morinda citrifolia leaves. Often called noni leaves in English, in Khmer they are called nhor.

We’ve made fish amok in cooking classes, we’ve been to villages to talk to locals about how amok trei is made, we’ve spoken to chefs about the key ingredients and cooking process, and we’ve eaten it more times than we care to remember. And we still order it in restaurants.

The version made by our little old ladies is not only the most sublime we’ve ever tasted by a wide margin, but it’s as close to the version at its most canonical from our research.

One restaurateur we cooked with was very proud of this old Cambodian dish, yet he had a chicken amok on the menu, knowing full well that this was never actually a Khmer dish. His reasoning was that many diners wanted to sample amok but they didn’t eat fish and he still “needed to make money”.

Like many restaurants in Siem Reap he couldn’t resist the appeal of the tourist dollar and had indeed introduced a range of  ‘amoks’, including ‘beef amok’, ‘vegetarian amok’, and, yes, ‘tofu amok’. Pride in a classic dish takes a back seat when you have vegetarians and ‘anti-pescatarians’ enter your restaurant and you have to not only feed them, but ultimately, your family.

However, when we told the Battambang ladies about the different versions of amok that are served across the country they were horrified. The eldest of the matriarchs even clutched her chest as she translated this shocking story to her cousins and family and friends who were assisting with the cooking that day.

If we had have just walked into the kitchen as she delivered this devastating news, we might have suspected she was telling the others that a beloved relative had died.

For these elderly women, there is nothing but fish amok and the dish is not amok unless it’s steamed. The corruption of their centuries-old dish (some believe it’s even older) is a threat to their culinary heritage and cultural traditions as much as their sense of taste.

Here’s our authentic fish amok recipe. Heavily researched, tried, tested and tried again.

What do you think? Would you order chicken amok? Should visitors take some responsibility for the preservation of culinary traditions?

End of Article

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2018-05-27T15:28:28+00:00By |

About the Author:

Professional travel/food editorial/commercial photographer and food and travel writer based in Asia. His photography and writing assignments has seen him visit over 70 countries. Has authored some 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides. Photography has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Wanderlust, Get Lost, Travel+Leisure Asia, DestinAsian, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee and many more.

11 Comments

  1. Adrienne April 24, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Hi Lara – Love your site! We retired early a year ago, sold up and are now travelling full-time around Asia (slowly).
    It’s great to read your accommodation reviews. Most of the travel blogs are for backpackers on a shoe string so it’s nice to get recommendations for more upscale places. We’ll be in Cambodia from the beginning of May so will be making full use of all the info in your blog – Certainly looking forward to trying the real amok.

  2. Lara Dunston April 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Hi Adrienne – Good on you! Sounds like a great trip! And thank you so much for the kind words! So pleased you’re finding the site useful. Do get in touch with us when you’re here and don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions. Happy to meet for a coffee/drink.

  3. Cathie December 9, 2017 at 1:05 am

    What an interesting read with great integration of socio-cultural and economic factors that affected the transformation of the dish all these years.

    I’ve only had full-steamed fish amok at Sugar Palm, and most versions I’ve had were semi-steamed. I’ve also recently received a photo of fish amok, which I think was on R&D phase, from a Cambodian chef and it’s also semi-steamed.

    I think it’s also a big issue that some writers cover Cambodian cuisine despite their lack of familiarity of the cuisine. This practice spreads wrong information about fish amok, and the cuisine in general.

  4. Lara Dunston December 9, 2017 at 10:51 am

    Thanks, Cathie 🙂 I’ve since discovered a whole lot more about the history of the dish, which will go into the book we’re writing. When we first came to Siem Reap for a story in 2011 or 2012, everywhere where we had it, fish amok was fully steamed. We mainly stayed at luxury five star hotels, like Raffles (our first trip was for a magazine story), where they do Royal Khmer Cuisine, where it must be steamed. Before that, in Phnom Penh, on our very first trip to Cambodia, we had it at Malis, Romdeng, Sugar Palm, and another restaurant in Phnom Penh that no longer exists and they were all fully steamed. It’s only in recent years that it’s become more acceptable, mainly among younger chefs, to not steam it properly or simply serve it as a curry. I blame some of the cookbooks published by Western publishers, too, as they mainly have a recipe for the amok curry, unfortunately. I’m going to do more research in Siem Reap and see how other restaurants are doing it here these days and I’ll report back.

  5. Leighton Cook August 17, 2018 at 9:25 am

    I’m currently in Siem Reap for the Summer and am planning on heading to Battambang within the next month. Do the four women in Battambang you mentioned sell their Amok and if they do, where might I find them? I would love to try some authentic steamed Amok!

  6. Lara Dunston August 17, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Hello Leighton

    The women we interviewed in Battambang for our cookbook don’t make it to sell to the public. To try Cambodia’s most authentic ‘amok trei’ (steamed fish curry – ‘amok’ means to steam and ‘trei’ is fish), then go to Sugar Palm restaurant here in Siem Reap: https://grantourismotravels.com/2016/07/26/best-siem-reap-cambodian-restaurants/

    In Battambang, you’ll find a little lady outside the central market in the heart of town, Psar Naht, selling the street food version, similar to Hor Mok in Thailand, in the evenings. She’s right near the BBQ stalls and usually just has a tray or two. These aren’t as refined or as rich as Kethana’s at Sugar Palm, but according to the old ladies we interview are more authentic and closer to the old style than the amok trei you mostly find in restaurants, which hasn’t been steamed for long enough. https://grantourismotravels.com/2014/07/12/our-guide-to-eating-and-drinking-in-battambang/

    And when you get back home you can try your hand at making our recipe: https://grantourismotravels.com/2017/05/23/cambodian-fish-amok-recipe/

    Enjoy your time in Cambodia and let us know if you have any more questions. I have great guides and drivers if you need them.

  7. Leighton Cook August 20, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Thank you so much! I found her as well as a plethora of desserts at Psar Naht!

  8. Lara Dunston August 20, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Hi Leighton, that’s great to hear! Yes, so much good food in Battambang. But did you get to try Sugar Palm’s amok trei before you left? That really is the one I use as the benchmark by which to compare all others. If not, try to get to their Phnom Penh resto if you’re heading south.

  9. Leighton Cook August 21, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Dear Laura, I have not yet but I am in Siem Reap for the next month (I am currently interning at the Center for Khmer Studies, CKS) and I will make sure to get there!

  10. Lara Dunston August 22, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Ah, fantastic! If they still have a mailing list, can you put me back on it? I used to receive newsletters/updates from them years ago – they used to hold public talks every now and again (do they still?) – but haven’t received anything in years. It’s laradunston(at)me.com. I’m a food/travel writer/journalist. Thanks!

  11. Leighton Cook August 22, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    Yes I will try my best when I go!

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