Khmer Amok Curry
posted by Stephanie in Indulgences
The light in Angkor is different. It doesn’t shine but glows warm against the carved stone temples. Smiling buddhas and fierce warriors alike all awash in softness. Majestic trees with gigantic gnarled roots snaking around the temple doors and windows, teetering the fine line between grotesque and sublime.
The impressive remnants of the glorious Khmer Empire that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries stand tall and true, hidden within the lush jungle north of the great Tonle Sap Lake and not far from the bustling and hip town of Siem Reap.
The Khmer people are friendly. They look so much like the faces on the walls of Angkor. They are also hard working and a touching mix of bittersweet. They will open up about the horrors of their red past, about the difficulties of surviving in the increasingly dry countryside and yet they remain optimistic. Accepting their history openly to move on to a brighter future.
Most surprisingly is the food – oddly familiar yet uniquely distinct. Khmer food uses almost the same ingredients indigenous to my home country, the Philippines, but in a more creative fashion. The amazing way they incorporate lemongrass, ginger and atsuete boggles the mind. Lighter than Thai but richer and more complex than Vietnamese food with clear South Asian influences, their cuisine is a dichotomous historic reflection of abundance and lack: spawned from their Hindu-Buddhist empiric roots and the later need for survival.
These guys like to eat and to eat well. One can speculate that it’s one of those legacies the French have left them. Our guide Sam, spoke fantastic English, was born in Angkor and at the end of the day made us feel like we had known him for years! A member of my own kin, constantly hungry, his eyes sparkled as he regaled us with his stories of his mother’s cooking. “My favorite. Stuffed Frog. We fill it with chili, lemongrass, black pepper, ginger and onions… grill it on open flames till it’s crisp. Wow. So hungry.” His childish grin and the way he smacked his lips… It was all so convincing. The guy made me want a stuffed frog at 9am.
Khmer Amok Curry is a classic dish of celebration. The fish is usually steamed in the sauce in little banana leaf bowls and bamboo baskets. This recipe however, has been refined by the chefs of the amazing Orient Express hotel “La Residence d’Angkor”. The sauce is made smooth and rich by straining the curry paste, yet keeping the delicate authentic flavor. I’ve also found multiple uses for the paste, like using it to marinade pork chops or skirt steak before grilling, or even whisking a bit into some oil and lime for an Asian salad dressing.
Traditional Khmer Fish Amok
1kg Mekong bar fish fillet or any firm white fish cut into 2 x3 inch pieces
150g sliced ngor leaf (can be substituted by jute leaves, amaranth leaves or spinach)
300g Khmer curry paste
100g red curry seeds or atsuete seeds
4 cans coconut milk
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
few banana leaves
30g red chili seeded
30g kaffir lime leaves
- Extract the color from the red curry seeds by frying them in hot vegetable oil. Remove seeds then add the Khmer curry paste and fry out the flavors for a minute or so. Turn down the heat and add the coconut milk. Bring to a slow boil and strain.
- Pour the strained amok sauce into a heavy saucepan or casserole, bring to a simmer. Add fish sauce, sugar and salt. Add the fish fillet and onion. Let cook for about 3-5 minutes. Add the sliced ngor leaves and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes.
- Remove from heat and serve in little baskets made from banana leaves.
- Garnish with a few drops of coconut milk, some julienned red chili and kaffir lime leaves. Serve with steamed Jasmine rice
Khmer Curry Paste
1kg lemongrass sliced
600g fresh turmeric root peeled
200g red curry seeds or atsuete seeds
60g kaffir lime leaves
330g peanuts (unsalted)
160g peeled garlic cloves
130g dried red chili
500g shrimp paste
500g coconut cream
- Place the lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots and dried chilli into a food processor. Puree to a paste. You may add some neutral vegetable oil to facilitate the process.
- In a sauce pan, heat some vegetable oil and extract the color from the red curry seeds by frying it up. Remove seeds then add the paste to the hot oil and cook out the flavors for a minute or so. Add the shrimp paste and coconut cream, plus a liter of water. Bring to a boil then simmer. Cook slowly for about an hour or two until golden brown and all the liquid has dried out and you are left with a rich thick paste. Remember to stir often to prevent burning.
NOTE: this paste can keep well in the freezer. For a less rich and more versatile version, nix the coconut cream, shrimp paste and water. Just fry up the pureed spices in the red curry oil. Let cool and cover with enough oil it should keep long in an airtight container or bottle in the refrigerator. You can adjust flavor or add shrimp paste as you use it.
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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.
We are The Gypsetters.