Fish Amok Recipe, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Cambodian Fish Amok Recipe – an Authentic Steamed Fish Curry in the Old Style

Our Cambodian fish amok recipe is traditional – an authentic steamed fish curry made to a recipe from an older generation of cooks who believe this refined dish is a Royal Khmer specialty dating back to the Khmer Empire.

This classic Cambodian fish amok recipe for a traditional steamed fish curry comes courtesy of a respected family of elderly cooks whose mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers made the dish during a time when Cambodian women thought nothing of spending a full day preparing a family feast.

Our Cambodian fish amok recipe isn’t a recipe for the watery fish amok style curry or sloppy fish amok you might have eaten in a Siem Reap tourist restaurant, which can be made in minutes in a wok. To make this authentic steamed fish curry from scratch, including pounding your own kroeung (curry paste) you will need to allow at least a couple of hours.

If you are not a regular reader of this site, note that we have been researching Cambodian cuisine for several years, interviewing old cooks and digging deep into archaeological archives, and that this post contains original research. Don’t even think about hitting copy and paste as we will know that you have plagiarised. Consider contacting us for a quote, try the recipe or wait until our cookbook comes out.

Cambodian Fish Amok Recipe

What is Cambodian Fish Amok – And What Is It Not

Cambodian cuisine must be Southeast Asia’s most under-appreciated and most misunderstood and one of its specialties, fish amok or amok trei (also spelt amok trey) in Khmer, must be one of its most confounding dishes of all, to untrained eyes appearing to be served in an array of forms, shapes and colours.

A traditional steamed fish curry – ‘amok’ refers to the process of steaming – it should have a texture that has been described as a mousse, mousseline, soufflé, and custard. We’ve also seen food writers call it a pâté and terrine. It’s most certainly in the realm of the former, but it in no way resembles the latter.

Most food-loving travellers to Cambodia fall in love with fish amok. It’s incredibly delicious and very moreish – it’s one of my favourite dishes. It’s also adorable when presented in a banana leaf basket or coconut shell – as Chef Kethana at Sugar Palm restaurant, who undoubtably makes Cambodia’s finest fish amok, does – with a drizzle of coconut cream and finely sliced kaffir lime leaves and chilli on top.

Fish amok is beloved by Cambodians. So much so that it’s often called Cambodia’s national dish – despite the fact that Cambodians probably don’t eat it often themselves. This is a special occasion dish. When it’s made in the authentic old style it’s rich and luxuriant and seems to incite feelings of nostalgia for an old way of life – even if it’s a life that many have never known.

Older cooks believe that amok trei is a Royal Khmer dating to the Khmer Empire. And in a country with a long history of oral storytelling, where family recipes are rarely written down, but daughters learn to cook from their mothers and grandmothers, who are we to argue with Cambodia’s culinary tradition.

There are also signs of its royal provenance in the refined nature of the dish, its complexity of flavour, and the time-consuming preparation when it’s made correctly – which requires pounding the kroeung (herb/spice paste), the base for the dish, and steaming it for 20-30 minutes until it’s firm to touch.

Despite its regal origins, amok trei is a dish that you’ll see sold in banana baskets on trays in markets and on the street. Although, I’ve never been as impressed by the take-away version. The fast food variety of amok trei is more rustic, like Thailand’s hor mok pla (also spelt haw mok pla) and the Nyonya otak otak which is essentially street food, typically spotted in markets.

Fish amok is sometimes compared to the Indonesian otak otak, which is actually more similar to the Cambodian street food snack called song vac or sang vak (also written as sangvak – ‘ang’ is pronounced as ‘ong’ in Khmer), a ground fish paste, wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and grilled over charcoal.

Our Cambodian fish amok recipe comes from the matriarchs of an old Cambodian family – several little old ladies who are the daughters of a long-gone generation of cooks, including a cook to a king. These women take their food seriously, thinking nothing of recruiting young female relatives and neighbours for a full day of preparation for a family meal. Our old ladies’ amok trei recipe can take several hours if followed closely.

For this older generation, their way of cooking Cambodian food – or rather, Khmer food (there is a difference between the two) – is the only way to cook what they believe to be the authentic food of Cambodia, which for them was at its best in the pre-Khmer Rouge era.

To Steam or Not to Steam – If It’s Not Steamed It’s Not Amok, It’s Curry

When we informed our old lady cooks that it’s possible to see fish amok in Siem Reap restaurants that hasn’t been steamed and that it’s served as watery as a soup or at best as a curry, they were aghast. When we revealed that it’s also offered with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, vegetarian, and tofu instead of fish, they were even more horrified. I love how Terence tells this story here in Ruining Amok, the National Dish of Cambodia.

It should be noted, however, that while this is generally just a short-cut to feed tired, impatient and hungry tourists, Cambodians are also known to make amok trei in a curry form, particularly poorer, hard-working Cambodians with less time on their hands. As Terence puts it in that same story on the link above, who wants to watch a dish steam for 30 minutes after working in the rice fields all day?

I spotted one food blogger write that some Cambodians don’t steam fish amok because they don’t have “steaming equipment”. While the traditional basket steamers aren’t used for fish amok (they’re used for sticky rice), they’ve probably been used for over a thousand years and can be hand-woven in a few hours. Not a lot of ‘equipment’ is needed to steam something here in this part of the world.

Even the poorest Cambodian home has a clay brazier in their rustic outdoor kitchen, which is often a bamboo hut or low wooden prep table in the breezy space under the house. The brazier is another piece of ‘equipment’ that’s been used for a few thousand years. It features in the bas reliefs on the walls at the Angkor temples.

Every home will have a wok, which can be used with a bamboo steamer, or they’ll have a large steaming pot. There will also be a very large mortar and pestle in the Cambodian kitchen.

Cambodian Fish Amok Short-Cuts and Substitutes

We’ve established that steaming is essential if you’re going to make this Cambodian fish amok recipe the old way, but there are a few time-saving measures for busy home-cooks and we need to tell you about substitutes.

While we believe that kroeung tastes better when it’s made in a mortar and pestle, and I personally love few things more than hearing the sound and smelling the fragrance of a fresh herb and spice paste being made, you can save a lot of time by using a blender instead.

Fresh coconut cream and coconut milk can of course be substituted with the tin variety if you don’t have coconuts or access to fresh grated coconut to be able to press your own coconut cream and milk.

For this Cambodian fish amok recipe our little old lady cooks prefer goby fish, snakehead fish or catfish – all freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap or Great Lake. Most cookbooks written in the West suggest a firm white fish such as cod or snapper. In cooking classes in Siem Reap, cooking instructors tell participants they can use anything from barramundi to salmon. David Thompson in Thai Food suggests whiting, blue eyed cod or perch for Thailand’s haw mok, which is a descendant of amok trei. Chef Kethana at Sugar Palm also makes a heavenly prawn amok.

Our little old ladies have one of the young assistants massage the kroeung into the fish fillets for up to an hour and let it rest before slicing it. For more intense flavour, after combining the kroeung and fish you could skip the massage and leave it to marinate in the fridge for a while.

Some Cambodian cooks will use their beloved prahok (fermented fish) instead of shrimp paste (kapi in Khmer) for a more authentic flavour. We’ve also seen young cooking instructors add “seasoning” (i.e. MSG) and/or Knorr’s chicken powder stock cubes, which would have their grandmothers rolling in their graves if they weren’t Buddhists who’d been cremated.

One ingredient in this Cambodian fish amok recipe that’s difficult to find a substitute for is slok ngor – also written as nhor (‘slok’ means herb). Nhor or noni leaf (morinda citrifolia) is what gives amok trei its distinctive taste. Traditional Cambodian recipes call specifically for young nhor leaf.

Recipes written for a Western readership suggest substituting the noni leaf with everything from kale to spinach. Chef Joannès Rivière of Siem Reap’s Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant recommends Swiss chard in A Culinary Journey in Cambodia (see link at the end of this post), a cookbook produced by Sala Bai Hotel School. Although note that this is a recipe for a fish amok ‘curry’ and is not steamed.

A Note on the Colours of Cambodia’s Fish Amok

One thing we often get asked about is the colour that an authentic Cambodian fish amok should be. If you’ve travelled around Cambodia, you’ll notice that fish amok can range from a yellow-green to orange-brown colour. Chef Kethana’s is more of that curry-brown shade with a red tinge due to the chilli, while the amok trei we see in markets, especially in villages, is often yellow-green.

The yellow-green fish amok is made with either the yellow kroeung paste or kroeung samlar m’chou in Khmer (made with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, shallots) or the green kroeung paste or kroeung prahoeur (which is heavier on the lemongrass, and has kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, and shallots, the addition of fingerroot/Chinese keys, but no galangal).

The orange-red fish amok uses the same yellow kroeung paste as a base, but has the addition of red chilli. Note that fish amok it is not normally made with red kroeung or kroeung samlar cari in Khmer, which has the yellow kroeung base of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, shallots, plus the addition of coriander seeds, cumin seeds and dried red chilli, and shrimp paste or prahok. These additional spices would make the amok trei very intense and it’s already rich enough.

5.0 from 8 reviews
Cambodian Fish Amok Recipe – an Authentic Steamed Fish Curry in the Old Style
Our Cambodian fish amok recipe is traditional – an authentic steamed fish curry made to a recipe from an older generation of cooks who believe this refined dish is a Royal Khmer specialty dating back to the Khmer Empire.
Author:
Cuisine: Khmer
Recipe type: Main
Serves: Serves 4
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Ingredients
  • 500 grams of white fish (goby, snakehead or catfish preferable; or snapper, whiting, cod, perch), skinned, boned and thinly sliced
  • 3 tbsp yellow kroeung (herb/spice paste – see recipe here)
  • 2 dried red chillies, soaked in water until soft, seeded and drained or a tsp of red chilli paste
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 2 tsp palm sugar
  • ½ cup first press coconut milk or tinned coconut cream
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup nhor/noni leaves (morinda citriforlia), shredded

  • Garnish
  • 1 tbsp first press coconut milk or tinned coconut cream
  • 1 tsp kaffir lime zest or finely sliced lime leaves
  • 1 medium sized red chilli or red capscium, finely sliced
Instructions
  1. Prepare the yellow kroeung as per the recipe on the link above, and add the red chilli and pound well into the mixture. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can blend it all in a food processor.
  2. Combine the kroeung, fish and other ingredients, but not the noni leaves. To taste chunks of fish only lightly combine, but for a smooth texture, desirable by some cooks, combine well by stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon or spatula.
  3. Test your level of seasoning by frying a spoon of the mixture (or zapping it in the microwave). It should be well balanced and taste a little fishy, a little salty, slightly sweet, a tad spicy, and rich and creamy. Adjust as necessary by adding a pinch of salt or sugar, fish sauce, or even a little chilli.
  4. Place a few noni leaves on the bottom of your ramikens, coconut shell or banana leaf baskets. If using banana leaf baskets, make ahead of time (see below).
  5. Add the mixture almost to the top and use a spoon or spatula to flatten out, drizzle a teaspoon of coconut cream and sprinkle some finely sliced kaffir lime leaves on top. Save some for a final garnish.
  6. Steam for 20-30 minutes then check. The fish amok should be cooked through and firm to touch but still retain a moistness. It should not be dry. When it’s almost done add the rest of the coconut cream on the top and steam for a few more minutes.
  7. Garnish with the remaining kaffir lime leaf slices and finely sliced red chillies or red capsicum if you don’t like chilli.
  8. Serve immediately at the centre of the table with rice on each guest’s plate and they can help themselves as they might a curry if eating family style. If you’ve made smaller individual portions for each guests then serve rice at the centre of the table or in small dishes on the side.
Nutrition Information
Serving size: 1 Calories: 371 Fat: 11.9g Saturated fat: 7.725g Unsaturated fat: 4.175g Trans fat: 0g Carbohydrates: 43.85g Sugar: 5g Sodium: 1023.5mg Fiber: 2.1g Protein: 20.8g Cholesterol: 138mg

How to Make Banana Leaf Baskets

If you happen to have a banana tree in your backyard… clean and soften your banana leaves in warm water and then pat dry. Use an upturned round plate or cake tin to trace a roughly 20-25cm in diametre circle onto a leaf and cut it out with scissors. The size varies depending on how large you wish them to be, whether you’re serving your fish amok family style for all guests to help themselves (when you’ll want to create a large banana leaf bowl), as an appetiser or main course, so you’ll need to experiment. Lay the cut-out flat and create a square bottom by raising one side at a time, folding each corner around onto the next side. Secure each side with half a wooden toothpick. (We’ve seen young cooks staple them but this doesn’t look pretty). Trim the tops so they’re even.

Further Reading on Cambodian Cuisine

We often get asked which Cambodian Cookbooks we recommend. They may not be the hippest looking cookbooks but Cambodian cooks believe the most authentic Cambodian recipes are to be found in Narin Seng Jameson’s Cooking the Cambodian Way and Hem Meakphal’s The Book of Khmer Cooking (only available in Cambodia). Sorey Long and Kanika Linden’s Authentic Cambodian Recipes has been the most comprehensive cookbook but it has also been adapted so much for its mainly American market that our little old lady cooks didn’t recognise some recipes. (Strangely it has suddenly disappeared off Amazon; we’re investigating). The Sala Bai Hotel School‘s Culinary Journey in Cambodia by Chef Joannès Rivière has super-easy recipes, makes a nice souvenir and proceeds support the school, but again, this is only available in Cambodia.

We used this Cambodian fish amok recipe to make mini fish amoks for our contemporary Cambodian feast. The small sizes are not only cute, they steam quickly. Do let us know in the Comments below if you this Cambodian fish amok recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.

Pictured: Chef Kethana’s fish amok from Sugar Palm restaurant, Siem Reap, which for us is the finest fish amok in Cambodia.

Keen to learn about Cambodian food? Consider our food and travel writing and photography retreats and our culinary tours. Planning a  trip to Cambodia? I craft bespoke Savour Siem Reap itineraries.

Need accommodation in Cambodia? See our recommended hotels in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang (all tried and tested).

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There are 29 comments

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  1. Cathie Carpio

    I’ve been looking for a recipe for this, so thanks for sharing! I have actually tried making fish amok during my most recent visit to Phnom Penh. Hopefully I’ll be able to find all the ingredients to try the recipe; I find it extremely hard just to source kaffir lime.

    Interesting write-up about fish amok as well. 🙂

  2. Fee

    I used some fresh Snapper for this and left it chunky for the texture. I think it added to the wonderful taste sensation and I even gave the banana leaf baskets a go- who knew those plants that have yet to fruit would come in handy!

    A really fun dish to create and the recipe was easy to follow.

  3. Abby

    This Fish Amok was delicious and I love that I can use whatever fish I have available and am not limited to one specific fish.
    Beautiful, tasty dish.

  4. Lara Dunston

    So pleased you enjoyed making this one! The banana tree has myriad uses. I don’t think they get enough use out of the whole tree in Australia. What do they do with the leaves, I wonder? Do they just let them drop off and die or do they have a purpose? I’ll have to investigate.

  5. Lara Dunston

    Thanks for the kind words, Abby. Different fish are going to result in a slightly different dish. While they recommend firm white fish here, some restaurants use shrimp and crabs, and I’ve also heard of salmon being used although that will make it even richer than it is. It may not be authentic but it’s incredibly delicious.

  6. James

    Cooked it tonight after bashing down some Kroueng yesterday. Used Snapper (in Australia) and prawns together and steamed in 5 inch bamboo steamers. Loved it and will use it many more times for parties. Also fried some of the mix as fish cakes which were also great. Thanks for the recipie.

  7. Terence Carter

    You’re welcome. Snapper is a great choice. Great idea with the fish cakes, I’ve never done it with the yellow kroeung, only the red, I’ll have to try it.
    Thanks for your comment.

  8. Myren Francis

    Thanks for the very intricate write-up about Fish Amok and for sharing us a glimpse of Cambodian Cuisine! I had a chance to try Fish Amok for the first time from my good friend, Cathie and it was truly a dish worth remembering! I like how the mousse was very light and airy. Because of the use of fresh herbs and spices, the dish has that very fresh aroma and flavor ypu wont from the dried version. Also, it was my first time trying those kind of flavors from the kroeung and it was really an eye opener. Tasting new flavors from a new cuisine, from which i have no clue about, was really refreshing! I’m glad that we’ve experienced a bit of Cambodia from that Fish Amok. Looking forward to try more Cambodian dishes in the future!

  9. Nika

    Just so you know that the not all banana leaf can be used for cooking. We only use banana leaf from Chek Omva (it’s shorter and chunky look, normally sold all around the market or temples as they use it for offerings to the gods and angels) and one or two of it’s cousin (only if really Chek Omva is not presented) . The rest of banana leaf leaves a bitter taste on any food or dessert

  10. Lara Dunston

    Hi Nika, thanks so much for taking the time to drop by and leave a comment. Are you living in Cambodia or are you a Cambodian living overseas? Do you cook Cambodian food often?

    Great point about the banana leaves! I’ll put a note in the text, above.

    I didn’t go into detail about the different types of bananas as I assumed that readers in Asia will know which leaves to use and if they don’t grow them they’ll buy them the right ones from the market; readers in Australia will either have them growing in their backyard, as the chek nam va – or ‘Ducasse’ banana, as it’s known in Australia – is grown in the northern half of Australia, and has become one of the most popular types of bananas there; and our North American or European readers will probably cook the amok trei in a ramekin 🙂

    Thanks again! Any other tips you have are always welcome 🙂

  11. Vi

    Wow!!!! This amok recipe and detailed post wins the internet!! It tastes exactly like how it should! We couldn’t find the noor leaves, even at the Cambodian grocery store, but will need to hunt it down somehow. Thanks for sharing!! Making this again for my grandparents. Do you know if there is a way to make it ahead of time and just steam it there? How long can it marinate, etc.

  12. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment. The little old ladies who taught us to make it would massage the paste with the fish for an hour or so! I would marinate it for up to a couple of hours max, but not in the baskets, in a non-reactive container and covered with cling wrap. Any longer and the fish might start to soften too much in reaction to the chillis in the curry paste. Note that we do have substitutions in the recipe for the noor leaves in the post; kale, spinach or Swiss chard.
    Love to see a photo, are you on Instagram?

    T

  13. Manos

    This fish amok is up there with Sugar Palm based on what I tried on one of Cathie Carpio’s dinners in Manila. I couldn’t get the same smooth texture when I tried the recipe, but the flavors are amazing. Thanks for the detailed recipe. I never thought I would be able to cook Cambodian food at home.

  14. Lara Dunston

    Hi Manos, re the smooth texture, note that it isn’t completely smooth as there are chunks of fish in there. However, if you mean the surface, you may just have had to steam it a bit longer. But note that even at Sugar Palm, where they are the masters at it, the texture differs slightly each time, sometimes it’s a little more wet than others (due to the noni leaves on the bottom), other times it’s dryer and smoother on top. The important thing is to steam it long enough to get that texture that is somewhere in between a mousse/mousselline and soufle, rather than just a curry. Thanks for dropping by!

  15. Cathie

    Manos, the recipe suggests you stir the mixture vigorously. It’s like how old cooks in the Philippines prepare leche flan in terms of stirring eggs and milk, but they don’t want the bubbles.

  16. Dalida

    According to my family, amok trey is not a royal dish. It does look fancy, like something only a royalty would eat. And it didn’t originate during the time of the empire either, it’s much older than that.
    My family would not make amok trey without nhor leaf. I once told my mom that some people use Chinese broccoli as a substitution. She was horrified. She would be even more horrified to taste shrimp paste instead of prahok, never mind the chicken, beef, pork and tofu.
    By the way, thank you for referring to kroeung as herb/spice paste.

  17. Lara Dunston

    Hello Dalida

    I’d love to hear more of your family’s thoughts. I’m just a researcher and writer, so I’ve based my ideas on my research discoveries.

    All of the chefs and old ladies I’ve interviewed in Cambodia over the years, including a woman whose mother was a cook to the late King Father, have said it began as a Royal Khmer dish and they believe it to have originated in the palace.

    The recipe above is based on the dish the palace cook used and the long version of it took hours as they were so methodical.

    They believe it to be a royal dish partly for that reason – it’s time-consuming when done properly in the old way, and poorer people such as rice farmers have never had the luxury to spend so much time cooking.

    But amok trei is one of those Cambodian dishes that can be found on the streets and in markets as well, although they tend to be more rustic versions and aren’t as rich tasting. They are most like hor mok in Thailand, which is very much a street food dish.

    As to the age of the dish, I haven’t been able to find any evidence yet that it is even older, so I’d love to know why your family thinks that and where they might think it comes from. There is a similar dish in China, but still quite different, and of course in Indonesia as well, but that may have even come from Cambodia.

    Thanks for visiting and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!

  18. Dalida

    There is a dish which is part of the royal court cuisine that we think amok trey is based on. It’s also a steamed dish. Amok trey is part of what my family would term as an élite cuisine. But don’t just take my word for it. We are not a family of chefs or anything. It’s just a general knowledge passed around within my father’s family. My aunt lived in the palace for some years. Her husband was the kings’ chief brahmin.

  19. Lara Dunston

    Hi Dalida, thanks for the further input. Sounds like your family has a fascinating history – have you researched it or written about it anywhere? Historically, in many culinary cultures, not just Cambodia’s ‘palace cuisine’ or ‘royal cuisine’ becomes the cuisine of the aristocrats and elites, as it did here – especially as royals become less significant or less accessible or diminish in numbers and have less impact on cultures. There are many steamed dishes that look like amok trei but are sweets, which you know obviously 🙂 But nobody has ever mentioned another savoury dish. I’d love to know more if you don’t mind asking your family.

  20. chieko

    I have all the ingredients already on hand except for noni leaves. Will sub maybe fish mint or Chinese broccoli. Looks like an amazing dish! Thanks for all the information about fish amok! I’m Japanese and love all things Asian!

  21. Lara Dunston

    Hello Chieko, thanks for the kind words! How did your fish amok turn out? If you like fish mint (not everybody does) then that’s a good choice. Some chefs will recommend large betel leaves, others suggest a few leaves of the dark green Chinese veg like bok choy or even kale. Would love to see a pic if you took one! You can find us on Instagram and Facebook 🙂


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