Before I even go into the wild and wonderful merits of this beautiful dish, let’s just revel for a second in the fact that it’s called ‘amok’. Apparently this is simply a Cambodian term for cooking a curry in banana leaves, but I don’t think we use the word ‘amok’ enough in English and so let’s take a moment and think about how we can incorporate it more into our lives.
Good. Now you’ve done that, let me tell you about the beautiful amok.
I ate this a couple of times in Cambodia, the best version at our little hotel in Siem Reap where the smell of its luscious coconut fragrance wafting out of the banana leaf I had unwrapped was the beginning of a rapturous love affair. I ate it the next day, too, at a little stand outside one of the Angkor Wat temples, where it was presented as a bowl of thick, steaming, lime-green soup, wafting seductively with brown sugar, coconut, spice and fresh fish. This kind of food makes me wonder why I ever eat anything else.
It’s essentially a steamed curry, made with the Cambodian curry paste kroeung, which features a heady mix of lime leaves, shrimp paste, chillies, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and shallots (here’s my recipe for kroeung, which makes two portions, so you can freeze half and have it ready for when an amok whim strikes you). This is stirred into thick coconut milk, to which you add eggs. The eggs enable you to steam this dish in banana leaves, where they thicken the sauce to a savoury custard (bear with me, it sounds odd but it’s great) that clings to chunks of soft, unctuous white fish. The banana leaves impart their trademark smoky flavour to the sauce, which has exactly the depth of sweet, salty, tangy coconut flavour that makes south east Asian curries so addictive.
This might all sound complicated, but it isn’t – the curry paste is made in seconds in a blender, and then it’s just a case of sautéing it in a little oil, adding your coconut milk (best to use the really thick part of a can of full-fat coconut milk for the right depth of sweet, creamy flavour), some brown sugar (or palm sugar if you can get it, to be truly authentic), fish sauce and eggs. Stir in chunks of white fish (I like to use cod cheeks for this, as they hold their shape really well and have loads of flavour, but any white fish will do, and I have an inkling this would also be insanely good with salmon or trout), then pour into banana leaves that you’ve shaped into boats to hold the sauce (you can use foil if these prove difficult to find, but you can buy them frozen from most Asian grocers). Shaping them into boats is a bit fiddly, but – as I discovered on a cooking course in Malaysia – it’s totally OK to use a stapler to hold the leaves together! Then steam – I use a bamboo steamer, again for authenticity, but a metal one would be fine – unwrap, and enjoy.
You need to serve this with loads of steamed or coconut rice, because you will want to soak up every last drop of that gorgeous sweet coconut sauce. Lime wedges are also essential, to bring zest and that important piquancy. I also like to serve this Vietnamese-style stir-fried pineapple with garlic, ginger, chilli and peanuts alongside, adding some greens to the pineapple too for crunch and vitamins. The sweetness and heat of the chilli pineapple and the crunch of the nuts are perfect alongside the meltingly rich coconut sauce and the soft fish. Serve the lot on a big platter for each person, for the maximum wow factor. You can easily put all this together in an hour, but it’ll look incredibly impressive.
Genuinely, I can’t express how much I love this dish. I’ve made it so many times over the last couple of years since visiting Cambodia, determined to get it exactly right before sharing it with you. The secret, I discovered, is full-fat coconut milk and more sugar than you'd think. This is the ultimate version, and has the perfect balance of sweet coconut, chilli, fragrant tropical aromatics and meaty white fish. It is my absolute favourite south east Asian curry, all the more so for being just a little unusual. Basically, it’s damn gorgeous and you need it in your life now.
Amok trey (Cambodian fish curry steamed in banana leaves), serves 2:
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
- One portion of kroeung curry paste (see recipe here, which makes two portions)
- 250ml full-fat coconut milk (the thick cream part from the can)
- 1 tbsp palm or brown sugar, plus more to taste
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 large egg
- 500g sustainable white fish, cut into chunks (I use cod cheeks)
- 2 banana leaves, or foil
- 3 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 red chilli
- Lime wedges, to serve
In a large frying pan, heat the oil over a medium heat. Add the curry paste and stir fry for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the coconut milk, sugar and fish sauce, then simmer for 5 minutes. Leave to cool, then taste – you might want a little bit more sugar or fish sauce; it should be deliciously sweet and coconutty. Stir the egg in thoroughly, then fold in the fish.
Take the banana leaf and fold over itself a couple of times until you have a large square. Fold the corners of the square together at each side so you have a boat shape that will hold the curry; fix the edges together with cocktail sticks (you can also use staples!). Repeat with the other leaf. If using foil, fold two squares into boat shapes.
Spoon the curry into the leaves/foil, then place in a steamer and steam for 20 minutes, or until the fish is opaque. Finely shred the lime leaves and chilli, then scatter over the top of the curry to serve, with lime to squeeze over.