Amok, sometimes referred to as Khmer Amok, is the national dish of Cambodia. It is often likened to a curry stew and a number of versions are available across the country, with the most famous of these being ‘Fish Amok’, which uses local freshwater fish as its protein source.
We delve into the fascinating origins of Fish Amok, which some people believe hail back to the 9th century Khmer Empire, as well as the key ingredients, how to prepare the dish and most importantly, where to try it whilst travelling in Cambodia!
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What is Cambodian Amok?
‘Amok’ refers to the steaming process used to make the dish. This is what gives Khmer amok its famous mousse-like texture. This cooking method also helps to really impart the flavours into the dish.
Amok is a very time-consuming dish to prepare. Kroeung (a type of Cambodian spice paste) is a vital ingredient which requires thorough grinding. It is then steamed for nearly half an hour before the rest of the cooking process even begins.
The dish is traditionally cooked in a palm or banana leaf and can be served with or without sticky rice. Sometimes it even comes served in a coconut!
Origins of Fish Amok (Amok Trey)
What we know about the origins and history of fish amok (known as amok trey in Khmer), is largely based on speculation. Freshwater fish is used in amok trey so it would be fair to assume that the dish originated inland, potentially from the area around the famous Tonlé Sap Lake.
Some believe that amok trey was once a Royal Khmer dish. This means that it dates way back to the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th centuries. Although little about the origins of Cambodian cuisine has been documented on paper, recipes and folklore have been largely passed down through the generations by word of mouth.
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge began their reign of terror, causing the deaths of 1.7 million people across Cambodia. At the same time as the genocide was taking place, much of the country’s cultural heritage was eradicated, including ancient recipes and culinary knowledge.
The country took decades to begin the healing process after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime but were determined to reinstate their traditions. Amok was brought to the table once again.
Although it is believed to have had grand origins, nowadays, amok trey has become widely eaten by all. Usually, Cambodians will enjoy fish amok as a celebration dish but it is also easy to pick up from street food vendors. Bear in mind that not all amok is equal and you will get a very different quality of dish depending on where you eat it.
Fish Amok: Cambodia’s National Dish
Fish amok is widely considered to be the national dish of Cambodia. Despite this accolade, it is not eaten often by Cambodians, instead being reserved for special occasions.
Amok trey is the main dish eaten at Cambodia’s Water Festival which celebrates the flow of Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. This is the local way of honouring the mighty Mekong River for blessing the people of Cambodia with fertile land and rich fish stocks.
Some have compared fish amok to otak-otak, a type of fish dumpling which is served in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. It has also been likened to the Indonesian food Botok, a type of Javanese dish served in a wrapped banana leaf.
Fish Amok Ingredients
The fish used in amok trey is always filleted freshwater fish. Usually, catfish, snakehead fish or goby fish is used but this can be substituted for other types of fish such as snapper, perch and salmon, to name a few.
The fish fillets are marinated in green or yellow kroeung, a type of Cambodian spice paste. A coconut milk sauce with eggs, palm sugar and fish sauce is drizzled on top before steaming.
Although fish is the protein used in the most popular version of amok, those who like their meals meatier can substitute it for chicken, beef, tofu and even snails! If you are a vegan travelling Southeast Asia, it is possible to replace the fish or meat with tofu as an animal-free alternative.
Herbs and flavours traditionally used in Cambodian cuisine also feature and include, but are not limited to, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, chilli and lime.
How to Make Cambodian Amok:
Recipes for Cambodian amok will vary. According to chefs, the most important thing to get right is the pounding and steaming of the kroeung (spice paste) as this is vital to the taste of the dish. As fish amok is a traditional Cambodian meal, a pestle and mortar should be used for spice grinding.
Once you have made your fish curry mix, you should spoon it into your banana leaf basket. While the thought of making these baskets is initially quite daunting, they are fairly simple when you know what you are doing. Make sure to check out the recipe video below to learn how to master your own authentic banana leaf basket!
After you have drizzled some coconut mixture onto the top, add some kaffir lime leaves before steaming for around 20 to 30 minutes. The goal is for the fish to be tender and moist yet still firm to the touch. Once cooked, garnish the amok before serving in the banana leaf.
What Does Fish Amok Taste Like?
This is a light fish curry, flavoured with creamy coconut tones. The curry paste is rich in flavour without being too spicy but it is the lemongrass and turmeric which make up the dominant tastes.
Unlike the cuisine from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, Cambodian cuisine is much less spicy so if you’re looking for a strong chilli kick, amok is unlikely to be the dish for you. Despite this, it still retains a rich and exciting flavour palate.
Where to Eat Amok in Cambodia
Malis Restaurant, Phnom Penh
No. 136 Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Often touted as one of the best places in Cambodia to eat fish amok is Malis Restaurant, run by renowned chef Luu Meng. The staff aim to put Cambodian cuisine on the map by serving up traditional dishes with a modern twist.
Amok Restaurant, Siem Reap
Street 9, Krong Siem Reap, 17252
Nestled in the centre of the old market, this gem is well worth a visit while you are in Cambodia. It prides itself on providing authentic Cambodian cuisine and serves a variety of different amok dishes from across the country.
Frizz Restaurant, Phnom Penh
67 Street 240, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Frizz Restaurant is a very popular choice for amok, located in Phnom Penh. They serve one of the best traditional fish amoks anywhere in the city and those that fall head over heels for the dish can even learn how to cook it in one of their dedicated cookery classes.
Lily’s Secret Garden Cooking Class, Siem Reap
Tolaka St, Krong Siem Reap
If you are a traveller exploring Cambodia on a budget, you won’t want to miss Lily’s Secret Garden Cooking Class. Although the menu is generally set, dietary requirements are catered for and amok is on the menu by request! If you are keen to learn how to make this classic dish, make sure you enquire in advance of booking.
Have you tried Cambodian fish amok somewhere we should include in our article? Let us know in the comments!