Amok trei or fish amok is a Cambodian steamed fish curry with an almost mousse-like texture when cooked properly. Travellers to Cambodia are told by tour guides and hotel and restaurant staff that fish amok is the national dish and must-try specialty when visiting the Kingdom. But how do you know that what you’re eating is an ‘authentic’ rendition? And does it matter?
Most versions of amok trei or fish amok that you’ll find in restaurants are not what Cambodian chefs, especially older Cambodian cooks, would consider a true amok trei. The ancient Khmer word ‘amok’ means to steam in banana leaf; ‘trei’ means fish. Yet most ‘amoks’ are little more than curries and are often not even made with the correct kroeung (herb and spice paste), let alone steamed and having rise like a soufflé.
So what is amok trei or fish amok? And what does it matter if it’s not always served the old way? Cuisines evolve, right? Right. But food, and particularly an ancient dish so beloved by its people — especially its older cooks, from a lost time — is imbued with meaning and is so much more than a dish to be consumed by tourists.
Ruining Amok, The Corruption of Cambodia’s National Dish Amok Trei or Fish Amok
A food blogger who visited Cambodia said she was confused because she ate fish amok four times on her trip and it was different each time she tasted it. Sure, there are regional variations, but when we looked at her photos online, none of the dishes she had tried in any way resembled a genuine fish amok.
This is true for most visitors to Cambodia. It’s very likely that visitors ordering fish amok will have a yellow fish curry placed in front of them. It probably won’t have a freshly-pounded kroeung prepared in house as a base, but a commercial paste, which can be stored virtually indefinitely, rather than having to make it fresh every day. And it could even taste like a mild Thai curry rather than a Cambodian curry.
Your 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 longer than the ten minutes it takes to make the curry.
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 an ‘authentic’ amok, according to Cambodian cuisine purists, such as the little old ladies from a family of old cooks, including a chef to a king, who we interviewed extensively for our Cambodian cookbook and Cambodian culinary history some years ago.
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, even more than we do. Dishes take a journey and change along the way, and as they do they transform and a cuisine evolves. 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, is also home to some of the region’s oldest dishes.
After we settled in Southeast Asia back in 2011, before each new trip 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 trei is the dish that delivers the most diverse set of history, ingredients and cooking methods. The Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook even insists it is ‘baked’. It’s not.
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. These days, the poorer the people, the more likely the dish is to be served as a curry, rather than steamed. But it will still be called ‘amok trei’ because they’re using the same herb and spice paste to make the dish.
We’ve visited houses in small villages around Siem Reap where they’ve prepared amok trei 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 contentious 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 trei correctly — according to our elderly Cambodian cooks 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 transferring the curried fish mixture into individual banana leaf ‘cups’ for steaming.
Our little old ladies, and dozens of other Cambodians we’ve interviewed over the years 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 when it’s on the menu.
The amok trei made by our little old ladies in Battambang is the most sublime we’ve ever tasted by a wide margin and most canonical from our research. The closest and finest restaurant version in Cambodia is chef Kethana’s at Sugar Palm, Siem Reap. You should order it immediately upon sitting down as it’s made from scratch and will take 40 minutes.
One Cambodian 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, who spoke some English and was fluent in French, even clutched her chest as she translated this shocking story into Khmer 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 announcing to the gathering that a beloved family member had died.
For cooks of an older generation, there is nothing but fish amok and the dish is not amok unless it’s steamed. For these Cambodians, the corruption of their centuries-old dish is a threat to their culinary heritage, cultural traditions and cultural identity, as much as to their sense of taste.
Here’s our authentic fish amok recipe. Heavily researched, tried, tested and tried again.
Published 21 April 2016
What do you think? Would you order chicken amok? Should visitors take some responsibility for the preservation of culinary traditions?