Cambodia for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Cambodia’s fish amok
Khmer food can be a bit of a mystery for travellers — Thai and Vietnamese cuisine has penetrated around the world, while Cambodian menus still have limited exposure. Which means that a visit to Cambodia allows for plenty of food adventures, but it can be difficult to know what to choose. If there’s one dish that you shouldn’t leave without trying, it’s the creamily wonderful fish amok (amok trei).
Amok is made with filleted freshwater fish, usually catfish or snakehead fish. It’s covered in a thick coconut sauce with eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar and seasoned with kroeung, a curry paste concoction of freshly pounded spices, including lemongrass, tumeric, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic, shallots and chillies. Traditionally, the amok is steamed in a banana leaf basket to get a souffle-like texture, but it’s also often prepared in a wok, making it a little more saucy.
One of my tests when I find a new Khmer restaurant is to order the amok. There’s been some horrors, including the amok that mostly consisted of carrots and beans, definitely not classic ingredients. Sadly, many of these have been served in guesthouses, where many travellers get their introduction to Cambodian cuisine.
To ensure you get the best, here’s a short summary of yumminess. For a real tropical feel, Samaky Restaurant on Street 51 serves up a subtly spicy version in a coconut shell, and Frizz restaurant on Street 240 also has a consistently good reputation for their traditionally steamed signature dish. The Laughing Fatman (previously Oh My Buddha) has been cooking up a storm for years, introducing travellers to local food and lingo, and their fish amok is a regular dinner choice.
If you have the time while you’re in Phnom Penh, you can take a cookery course and learn how to make amok yourself, including getting to grips with a mortar and pestle to prepare the spices. You’ll be in good company — Gordon Ramsey and Rick Stein both learned the art of amok on visits to Cambodia.
Samaky Restaurant and Lounge
Corner of Street 51 and 278, Phnom Penh
T: (070) 600 017
67 Street 240, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 220 953
43 Street 172, Phnom Penh
T: (012) 765 591
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