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?