Fish amok (or amok trey in Khmer) is a steamed fish curry that’s often considered the national dish of Cambodia. There, it’s revered as a cultural relic, one that supposedly dates back to the royal kitchens of the Khmer Empire. Cambodians are zealously proud of this rich, velvety curry, and any tourist who’s been through the Kingdom has likely tried it at least once during their stay.
But although I was born in Cambodia and grew up there, I’ve never tried fish amok in my homeland. It’s just not a dish that one cooks in the countryside, where the simpler, milder chicken curry is far more abundant.
Since coming to Canada, however, learning this classic Khmer recipe has become somewhat of a quest. And to my surprise, cooking fish amok was much less complex than I had imagined. I did give up on making the banana leaf bowls, which is an unjustifiable waste of time when you’re using the fragile store-bought, defrosted banana leaves. But apart from this one departure, the amok I learned to make at home — and the recipe I’m sharing here — adheres to the traditional ingredients and preparation steps.
Key ingredients in fish amok
Fish Amok harmonizes citrusy, savory, and sweet flavors in a rich creamy broth, a harmony made possible by these ingredients:
- Kreung paste: Kreung is a citrusy, earthy blend of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and turmeric; it’s a quintessential part of a number of Khmer curries, stir-fries, and marinades. In fish amok, the kreung paste also includes shallots and sweet chilies. Most of the individual ingredients comprising kreung are easy enough to source at local supermarkets. Galangal is the sole exception here — you’ll have to go to an Asian supermarket to find it in most locales.
- Coconut milk: Coconut milk adds a creamy, rich sweetness to the amok and tempers the spices of the kreung. Canned or boxed coconut milk is readily available at most grocery stores in the US.
- Palm or brown sugar: Palm sugar is the traditional Cambodian ingredient that adds a caramelly sweetness to amok. This sweetness is essential, as it balances the powerful citrus aromas of the kreung. You should have no trouble finding palm or brown sugar in any large grocery store.
- Fish sauce: Fish sauce is a Cambodian staple that adds salty, pungent, umami depth to the curry. It’s widely available in the Asian section of supermarkets in Western countries. If its flavor is too piquant for you, go ahead and use soy sauce instead.
- Noni leaves (Morinda Citrifolia): In Cambodia, cooks use Noni leaves to add a subtle flavor to the amok broth. However, finding these leaves is challenging (if not impossible) in Western countries. So, you can leave this ingredient out altogether. Alternatively, use banana leaves to fashion bowls and steam the amok in them — these leaves will give the dish a comparable flavor to Noni leaves.
- Fish: In Cambodia, freshwater fish are chosen for their firm texture, mild flavor, and, crucially, for their abundance. In the West, red snapper or tilapia are excellent alternatives.
Preparing fish amok
To prepare fish amok, first create the kreung paste, marinate the fish in it, and then steam the mixture. The entire process typically takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
All you need to prepare fish amok is a sharp knife, a cutting board, a mortar and pestle (or blender), and a steamer.
- 5 cloves Garlic
- 3 stalks Lemongrass
- 1½ inches Turmeric
- 1½ inches Galangal
- 1 Chilli
- 2 Sweet chilli peppers
- 2 tsp Brown sugar
- 3 tbsp Fish sauce
- ½ tsp Salt
- 1 tsp MSG
- ¼ cup Lime tree leaf
- 1¾ cup Coconut milk Creamy
- 1 lb Snapper fillet
- 1/3 cup Water
- Soak sweet chillies for 30 minutes if using dry ones. Then, slice thinly and set aside.2 Sweet chilli peppers
- Slice lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, hot chili pepper, and lime tree leaves and place inside a blender (leave a little lime tree leaf and chili peppers for garnishing the amok at the end). Add the sliced sweet chilies, salt, and water to the blender.5 cloves Garlic, 3 stalks Lemongrass, 1½ inches Turmeric, 1½ inches Galangal, 1 Chilli, ½ tsp Salt, ¼ cup Lime tree leaf, 1/3 cup Water
- Blend the kreung until it reaches a paste-like consistency.
- Transfer the kreung paste to a large bowl and set aside.
- Cut the fish fillets into roughly 1-inch squares.1 lb Snapper fillet
- Add the sliced fish to the kreung paste mix.
- Add brown sugar, fish sauce, and MSG to the fish and kreung paste mix.2 tsp Brown sugar, 1 tsp MSG, 3 tbsp Fish sauce
- Add the coconut milk to the bowl with the kreung and fish and mix everything together. Leave about 1 tablespoon of coconut milk for garnishing the amok later.1¾ cup Coconut milk
- Transfer the mix into a ceramic bowl, place the bowl into a steamer, and steam the amok for 40 minutes. You do not need to stir it.
- Garnish the amok by sprinkling the leftover coconut milk, chilies, and shredded lime tree leaves.
How to serve fish amok
In Cambodia, fish amok is traditionally served with steamed jasmine rice. Out of a communal bowl with the amok, take spoonfuls of the curry, place them onto the rice, enjoy, and repeat! Consider sipping a cold beverage with your meal; it’ll help balance the curry’s heat and its bold, zesty aroma.
Fish amok history
The history of fish amok allegedly begins in the Khmer Empire, which existed between the 9th and 15th centuries CE. Oral tradition holds that fish amok was a royal Khmer dish, although there are no written records to back this claim. However, dishes similar to amok exist in the cuisines of Cambodia’s neighbors — Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have curries that somewhat resemble the Khmer amok.