April 15, 2010 Karen Coates
I recently took a cooking class in Battambang. This is a new thing — only recently has Cambodia’s Wild West seen enough tourists to sustain such a class in traditional Khmer cooking. And only in the past few months have Keo “Toot” Touch and his wife, Nuon Nary, opened their modest little wood-and-concrete kitchen to inquisitive eaters.
The class (two Germans and I) began with a tour of the morning market — a frenzied maze of sticky, fragrant corridors filled with cross-legged women bearing vegetables spread across tiny tables and sidewalk cloths. Vendors sell from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., then retire in the sharp morning heat. Everything here is “very fresh,” Toot said. “The people who sell here come from the organic fields.” By that, he meant small-scale farms that use few chemicals and produce what grows naturally according to the seasons. This is as much a matter of economics as health, as many Cambodian farms are too poor to afford chemicals or systematized irrigation.
I learned many things on our sweaty walk. I learned of a “quinine plant,” s’dao , with reddish-green leaves and tiny white flower buds, which are consumed as medicine. “If you catch malaria, you eat this one,” Toot said. “You boil it, you drink it, and two or three weeks later, the malaria goes away.” (Either the malaria perishes, or….)
I learned, according to Toot, that most tomatoes in the Battambang market are imported from large Vietnamese or Thai plantations, which spray too many chemicals for his liking. He avoids them.
And I learned that a man can ask a chicken vendor to take a whole bird and carefully carve a skinless, boneless breast for a choice cut of meat in a foreigner-friendly curry. (I’m seeing more breasts on Khmer menus these days. In years past, most meat was chopped to smithereens with a bone-crushing cleaver to create a style my husband and I call “grenade chicken.”)
I also learned that mice, piled for sale on the sidewalk, are barbecued, grilled or fried. And that in order to kill a king cobra, the reptile’s mouth is sewn shut, its tail is chopped, and the creature is hung to drain its blood. “You drink king cobra blood to make strong energy,” Toot said. And the meat: “best taste.” Toot learned to eat snake, mouse, dog and frog while working in sugarcane fields as a child under the Khmer Rouge. “I was so hungry. Everybody starving. That’s why we eat everything.”
But then I learned, back in his kitchen with the lovely Nary, that the couple has one of the best recipes for traditional Khmer amok (curried fish steamed in banana leaf) that I have ever eaten anywhere. Period. (It has a lot of garlic, and I’m a fiend.)
So I’ll get right to the point and present that recipe here:
Cambodian fish amok
(From Nary Kitchen, Battambang)
200 grams freshwater fish
2-3 lemongrass stalks, sliced and chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 cm cube galangal
1 cm cube zingiber (kaempferia pandatura, a rhizome in the ginger family that adds a distinctive flavor)
1 cm cube turmeric
1 tsp shrimp paste
200 ml coconut milk
Nhor leaves (You can substitute Chinese kale)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp bouillon or equivalent in chicken stock
4 dried red peppers (mild)
2 Kaffir lime leaves
1 hot Thai bird chile
a few sprigs of cilantro
Banana leaves to shape into a bowl for steaming (can substitute ceramic)
To make the paste, or kreung as it is called in Khmer, finely chop the lemongrass using the bottom 10 cm of each stalk. Put it in a mortar. Smash the garlic with a knife and peel; set aside. Add to the mortar galangal, zingiber, turmeric, 1 lime leaf and a pinch of salt; pound for 15 minutes (or until smooth), gradually adding the garlic.
Wash and soak the dried red peppers, then chop finely. Add to the kreung along with the shrimp paste; pound more.
Thinly slice the fish, then put in a small pot. Add chicken stock or bouillon, sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir and press the fish with a spoon so the flavors are infused into the flesh. Add the kreung, then gradually the coconut milk, saving a bit for the cream. Cook until the liquid turns into a thick paste. Remove from heat.
Make banana leaves into a small bowl using toothpicks to hold their shape (or use a ceramic bowl). Tear the nhor leaves, removing the stems; add to the bottom of the bowl. Cover with the mixed fish paste and cook in a steamer for 25 minutes.
To make coconut cream, boil 40ml of coconut milk with a pinch of bouillon until it turns thick. Spoon over the steamed amok. Garnish with one thinly sliced chile and one thinly sliced Kaffir lime leaf and cilantro. Serve with rice.