Kingdom of Cambodia

Cambodian food, or really what we should probably call Khmer cuisine, is deviously subtle, complex and, most of all, resilient. The culinary traditions of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group have survived countless bouts of subjugation, colonization and attempted extermination. Most recently, France acted as suzerain over Cambodia (and several other parts of Asia) in the late 1800s and exerted a strong influence over many aspects of its culture, even introducing the now-common baguette and pâté. Then, from 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge party systematically eliminated large groups of Khmer through forced labor and executions, endangering the whole of Khmer tradition. In addition to the obvious tragedy of the senseless loss of human life, we also cannot guess how close the world came to having let slip away a priceless part of our collective cultural history.

As soon as I read about amok trey, a traditional Khmer dish and the one for which Cambodia is perhaps most famous, I knew I wanted to cook it. And in the spirit of the Khmer qualities of defiance and strength, I really wanted to do it the right way. And to do it right, I needed prahok.

I told u I was hardcore

I told u I was hardcore

Oh, prahok. Known half-jokingly as “Cambodian cheese,” this paste of fermented, mashed mudfish preserved in salt is a cornerstone of Khmer cooking, and is one of several ingredients that distinguishes Cambodian food from that of the countries surrounding it; namely Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. As you can see, it is a mouth-watering hue of beige, and has a scent that grabs you by the collar and slams you against a wall. With its notes of wet feet, ocean docks and well-worn underwear, I would be lying if I said that upon first contact I was not immediately reminded of the reek wafting out of that one suspiciously empty subway car during rush hour. It’s role is that of providing richness, saltiness and savoriness, much like mushrooms, cheese and any number of other potentially stinky ingredients. It’s also a great example of people making the most of what nature has given them, and of making it last a long time without refrigeration.

I tracked down a jar of prahok in the Bronx at Battambang II Market, one of two stores dealing in Cambodian goods in the area. Since for some reason I thought it completely plausible that I would find a jar with “PRAHOK” written on it in clear English lettering, I was of course let down almost immediately. I asked the woman at the register if they sold prahok (which is pronounced somewhere between “prahok” and “pahok“) and she smiled at me. “The stinky one, right?” she asked. She brought me over to the above-shown jar of paste (bearing the Thai moniker of mắm cá lóc) and handed it to me. “You wanna smell it?” I agreed, and she opened the top with little “pop,” waving it under my nose and chuckling.

Friends, I’m no stranger to fermented seafood products – you may recall my unceremonious baptism by cencaluk back in Brunei as an example of this. So to say that I fully gagged when I caught a double-nostrilled blast of what was in that jar is saying quite a lot. Ni, the nice Khmer woman who showed me around Battambang Market, laughed her ass off, as did I and the other five people milling around the store on a Saturday morning. It seemed like a hazing, and I think I passed the test, although I still have that harrowing aroma stuck in my sinuses.

Anyway, besides prahok we’ll need a couple of other ingredients to make an authentically Khmer amok trey; for example, this little dude:

Morinda Citrifolia, aka "nhor"

Morinda Citrifolia, aka “nhor”

The leaves of this cute noni tree, known botanically as morinda citrifolia and colloquially as “cheese fruit” or “vomit fruit” – due to the reek of its lumpy yellow fruit’s ripe flesh – lend a light bitterness to the pungent yellow kroeung (a typically Khmer spice paste) that will be used in our fish amok. I bought this baby tree on Ebay from a grower in Hawaii, but, sadly, after harvesting just these two leaves it went the way of all flora. The cold and dryness of NYC was simply too much for it. RIP little pal 😦 I’ll pour out some prahok for ya.

The rest of the kroeung is made up of several other roots and herbs: galangal, which is hardy and has a menthol scent a little like Vicks VapoRub; lemongrass; fresh turmeric; and this newcomer to my kitchen, fingerroot.

Chinese Key aka Fingerroot aka "rhizome" (because why make things easy?)

Chinese Key aka Fingerroot aka “rhizome” (because hey, why make things easy?)

Fingerroot, or boesenbergia rotunda as the egghead scientists call it, is from the same family as ginger, galangal and turmeric, but has a unique herbal flavor and a stronger aroma that reminds me of alcoholic bitters – spicy and citric but also medicinal. It is yet another distinguishing ingredient in Khmer cuisine, though it has its place in Thai and Indonesian kitchens as well. As I read on several Khmer message boards, you simply cannot make a kroeung that is truly kroeung without it, so I was lucky to find it frozen at a market in Chinatown.

So let’s cook a little: take all the kroeung ingredients and beat them into a paste. This will take a long time, longer than you ever imagined.

Keep going

Keep going

Once your astringent, floral paste is well-mashed, you have to combine it with some contrasting ingredients like the prahok, some finely-julienned noni leaf, a bit of coconut cream and lots of palm sugar, and then you have to pour it over some hunks of fish – we’re using catfish, since the typical amok trey uses freshwater fish. You can see already the delicate layering of flavors that Khmer food is known for starting to come together – funky, sour, sweet, bitter. Oh, and we’re throwing in a beaten egg to help it set as it steams, too – a little tip from Ni at Battambang.

Palm sugar comes in pucks that you get to smash using your anger

Palm sugar comes in pucks that you get to smash using your anger

While the fish soaks in this sauce, you’re going to use toothpicks and plantain/banana leaves to make little steamer cups. Just lay the leaves two or three deep and start pinching the four corners one at a time and securing them vertically with a toothpick. Before you know it you should have a leak-proof little vessel into which you can pour the fish and sauce mixture, like so:


In retrospect I’d suggest filling the cups after they have already been placed in the steamer basket. This way you won’t have to worry about moving them around too much, as they are a little fragile. They steam over boiling water for anywhere from 12-30 minutes, depending on how big they are and how much fish is in each cup. Just jiggle the basket a little – if the sauce is still liquid, keep steaming. The fragrances flowing out of your kitchen will bewilder: sweet coconut, spiky galangal and turmeric, and sneaky, seeping prahok that will make your apartment smell like a hostel for people suffering from trimethylaminuria. Layer upon layer upon layer.

Once the amok is set, take it off the heat and let it cool for just a couple of minutes. Spoon some more coconut cream over the top – I highly recommend the Chaokoh brand shown above – and garnish with some more noni leaf, kaffir lime leaf and/or sliced chilis. Ni recommends serving it with jasmine rice, too.

Amok Trey

Amok Trey

If you did it right, the amok should hold its shape when you undress it. Mine was maybe a little too liquid, or I could have used another egg. I’ve amended the recipe to correct for this, so you are good to go.


Since many Americans’ most familiar exposure to Southeast Asian food is Thai, and since I am American, I was pleasantly surprised on my first bite to find something rather different. Nothing sharp, no throat-closing heat, but instead a mellow and complicated sweetness. The texture is like mousse, interrupted only by flakes of catfish and the occasional shard of unmashed galangal or turmeric. And so, so much coconut – oh God Almighty, the coconut. The more you eat, the more you want – it’s maddening. No one ingredient stood above the rest, which is impressive considering how many ingredients are in this dish.

OK, a quick dessert before we wrap things up.

Speaking of wrapping things up:

Num Ansom Chek

Num Ansom Chek

Num ansom chek, or banana sticky rice cake, is served at weddings as a symbol of fertility. Why is it a symbol of fertility? Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh



The ingredients are so simple: baby bananas, glutinous rice, coconut cream, ever more palm sugar and sweet red beans. These beautiful little vine beans are used all over Asia in snacks and desserts, though the word “sweet” is relative – those expecting anything in the realm of an Oreo or a Snickers will be sorely disappointed. My guess is that their soft texture and mellow flavor synch up really well with sugars of various origins, with the palm variety being an exceptional match.

red beans awaiting integration

red beans awaiting integration

It’s not a hard recipe, but the wrapping process shown above does take a little time and practice – I tore through a few sheets before I got the hang of it. Once they are wrapped tight and tied shut, these cakes need to boil or steam for at least two hours (for small ones) and up to six hours (for large ones). I boiled mine, and I think next time I would try steaming them instead; being submerged in water for that long made them a little less sweet than the ones I tasted at Battambang, probably because the sugar dissolved and flowed out of the leaves. I’d also go for a ratio of less rice and more banana. To eat, just unwrap one and get at it:


If wrapped well and prepared correctly, these cakes are soft, lightly sweet and very filling. The coconut cream soaks into the sticky rice, and the banana leaves impart their own fruity flavor to the outer surface of the roll. The red beans, having been cooked for hours as well, are mushy and rich and serve as a starchy countermeasure to the more assertive palm sugar.

Cambodia, you’ve made it through some tough business. You’ve protected the traditions that define your cuisine and you’ve given us some very unique flavors and techniques. And your smelly fish paste will haunt my nightmares forever.

Now you go:

Amok Trey

20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)

2 lbs. catfish fillet, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced (use only the softer root section)
1-inch piece galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
1-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled and thinly sliced
2-3 fingerroot tendrils, peeled and thinly sliced (do not use the central core, or “palm”)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
6 dried chiles de arbol (or Thai chilis), soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp prahok, mashed (use less if you prefer)
1/4 cup palm sugar (you may need to grind this into powder if it comes in pucks)
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
2 morinda citrifolia leaves, washed and finely julienned
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1 red Thai chili, julienned for garnish
2 kaffir lime leaves, washed and julienned for garnish

Place a large pot of water over high heat. Place bamboo steamer baskets over the top of the pot and cover tightly. Alternately, prepare commercial steamer pot according to manufacturer instructions.

Make the kroeung; in a mortar and pestle, grind the following ingredients in the following order: dried chilis, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, fingerroot, shallot, garlic. Grind until a thick paste is formed, adding about 1-2 tsp. of water as needed to reduce friction. Alternately, process all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

In a large bowl, combine the kroeung, prahok, fish sauce, palm sugar, morinda citrifolia leaves, eggs, salt and half of the coconut cream and mix well. Add the fish pieces and toss to coat. Let rest, covered, in refrigerator for at least 10 minutes, and up to one hour.

While the fish rests, stack 2-3 banana leaves at a time and pinch each of four corners to create a small cup. Secure corners with toothpicks. Repeat to make 5-6 cups.

CAREFULLY pour the fish and sauce mixture evenly into the banana-leaf cups and set gently into the steamer baskets. Cover tightly.

Steam for at least 12 minutes, until the sauce is set and is no longer liquid. Remove baskets from heat and let cool slightly.

Pour remaining coconut cream evenly into each cup. Garnish with lime leaf and red chili. Serve with Jasmine rice.

Num Ansom Chek

20 10-inch x 10-inch sheets of banana leaf, soaked in water for about 1 hour (cut larger leaves to size and remove outer husk if necessary)

Butcher’s twine or ribbon

8 small, ripe bananas
4 cups white glutinous rice
2 cups red Azuki beans
1 13.5-oz. can coconut cream
4 heaping tbsp. palm sugar
1 tsp. salt

Soak the rice and beans separately in abundant water overnight. Drain well.

In a large bowl, combine the rice, beans, coconut cream, palm sugar, and salt. Mix well.

Lay four overlapping banana leaves to cover a 15-inch square area. Pour two cups of the rice mixture in long pile down the center of the square. Lay 2-3 bananas over this pile in a straight line.

Bring the two vertical sides of the square together and pour an additional cup of the rice mixture down the tube to cover the bananas. Fold the leaf repeatedly downward to form an open tube. Tie one length of butcher’s twine or ribbon around the center to secure the tube.

Bending one end of the tube shut, turn the other end upward and tap the tube gently to move the rice toward the center. Bend the open end shut as well, and tie in two places to secure.

Turn the tube over and repeat the process with the untied end – open it, tap the tube gently, then bend tightly over the center and tie in two places to secure.

Repeat this process for the remaining leaves and rice mixture.

Place the tubes in a large pot of boiling water or in a large steamer basket or colander over boiling water and cook, covered, for at least two hours and up to six hours.

Remove from heat. Let drain and cool. Serve at room temperature.


5 thoughts on “Kingdom of Cambodia

  1. OMG! Mark! Hilarious. Sorry for laughing, but the part about you buying the Prahok was priceless. I’m still giggling. Awesome piece…

  2. Great post! There’s a Thai fish-mousse thing that I’ve tried at Chao Thai Too — I wonder if they’re similar at all? I do think it has coconut. Also… nice molcajete. 🙂

    • I’d be willing to bet they are related, though the Thai version will assuredly have none of the hard-to-find roots and herbs that the Cambodian/Khmer version requires. I want to try that place!


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