One of my best memories from a trip to Cambodia several years ago was stopping at a little restaurant stall near one of the most famous Angkor Wat temples. We were sweaty, dusty, and exhausted after clambering around the temple after the temple in the sweltering heat, and allowed our tuk-tuk driver to take us to the closest place that served food. Based on my experiences of traveling Europe, where the quality of food is inversely proportional to the restaurant’s proximity to a tourist attraction, I was skeptical and resigned myself to the prospect of an overpriced, average lunch. We sat for around half an hour while ominous banging and clattering sounds came from the stove out at the back, only to then be presented with steaming bowls of the most heavenly curry, wafting seductively with brown sugar, coconut, spice, and fresh fish. All my reservations immediately disappeared.
Amok means to steam a dish in banana leaves. Doing so lends a wonderful, smoky fragrance to the sauce, lightly set using eggs. Serving in banana leaves (which are widely available in Asian grocers) also looks very impressive, but you can use foil if you can’t find them.
This dish is excellent served with sticky or jasmine rice and the stir-fried pineapple, greens, and cashews (omit the tofu) here.
For the kroeung curry paste
1cm piece of galangal or ginger root, roughly chopped
2cm piece of turmeric root, roughly chopped, or 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
6 garlic cloves
3 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers removed, very finely sliced
2 banana shallots, roughly chopped
10 kaffir lime leaves (fresh, or frozen and defrosted, but not dried), tough center stems removed, or finely grated zest of 2 limes
2 whole, hot red chilies, stalks removed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
One teaspoon sea salt flakes
1 teaspoon shrimp paste or Thai fish sauce
3 tablespoons flavorless oil, such as rapeseed, coconut, or groundnut
For the curry
1 tablespoon flavorless oil, such as rapeseed, coconut, or groundnut
250ml full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon palm or brown sugar, plus extra to taste if necessary
1 tablespoon fish sauce, plus extra to taste if necessary
3 kaffir lime leaves (fresh, or frozen and defrosted, but not dried), shredded (tough center stems discarded)
1 tablespoon lime juice, plus lime wedges to serve
500g thick fillet of sustainable white fish, such as coley, pollock or Pacific cod, cut into 5cm chunks
2 banana leaves or 2 large sheets of foil
1 red chili, deseeded and finely sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped coriander leaves
First, make the curry paste. Put everything in a food processor and blitz it to a paste (add a tiny splash of water and keep scraping down the sides to help it blitz). This will make twice the amount you need, so store the excess paste in the fridge (for up to 1 week) or freezer.
To make the curry, in a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the curry paste and fry for 4–5 minutes until fragrant – stir regularly, so that it doesn’t catch and burn. Add the coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce, and kaffir lime leaves, then simmer gently for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Leave to cool for about 10 minutes, then add the lime juice and taste – you might want a little bit more sugar or fish sauce; the flavor should be deliciously sweet and coconutty. Whisk in the egg thoroughly, then stir in the fish chunks.
Take a banana leaf and fold it 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, as I learned at a cooking class in Malaysia). Repeat with the other leaf. If you’re using foil, fold two squares into boat shapes.
Spoon the curry into the leaves or foil (and leave open), then place them in a steamer (preferably a bamboo one, which gives a lovely fragrance) and steam for 20 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and the custard is lightly set. Scatter the chili and coriander over the top and serve with lime wedges and some steamed sticky or jasmine rice.