Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Cambodia III - Amok Trey

My mini "excursion" to Cambodia is almost done, and I couldn't finish it without trying my hand at what (so I've read) is to Cambodia as the hamburger is to the US: the coconut milk, fish sauce and galangal-coated steamed fish dish known as amok trey. Known in Laos as mók pa and in Thai as haw mòk plaa (if I read that Wikipedia entry correctly), it gets its name from the method of cooking it: wrapping it in banana leaves (mok or amok). I couldn't find more than a mention of it in the Elephant Walk Cookbook so I turned to the internet, where I found a few recipes for it. The one I used is from's Cambodia page. The recipe calls for the following ingredients (look at the recipe for exact amounts):

  • fish sauce (natch - a few tablespoons)
  • coconut milk (duh - a whole can is needed)
  • garlic (not nearly as much as for the nataing - only a clove)
  • red onion (a whole onion)
  • galangal (a bigger, tougher member of the ginger family)
  • lemon grass (dried or fresh - I got the fresh variety)
  • turmeric, paprika and a wee bit of sugar
  • also a wee bit of salt (optional since you have the fish sauce)
  • a pound of some sort of white fish
  • and, of course, banana leaves
Again, some of this I had on hand, and some I had to go buy:
  • garlic - Normally I have this on hand, but since I had just used it all on the nataing I needed more (50 cents at the farmers' market for a head)
  • lemongrass, at H-Mart - about $2 per lb. I got two pieces that weighed about 1/4 lb. I still have 1 1/2 stalks left. Not quite sure what to do with them yet. Can I freeze it?
  • big ass package of banana leaves - only sold at H-Mart by the package, $3 (Wait - no banana leaves? Are you tired of having them break all the time? Just use big green cabbage leaves and soften them in water.)
  • galangal - hands down, the most expensive item. It sells at H-Mart for $7 per lb (and at Wegman's for $9 per lb)! Do what I and the woman next to me did, and break off a smaller piece. Mine was only about 1/4 lb. You do the math.
  • catfish, $6 per lb at Wegman's - yes, US farmed, and according to the helpful folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (thanks again to Eric & Alan for the heads-up) it's one of the best seafood choices that Marylanders and others in the "Southeast Seafood Region" can make.
Total out of pocket (4 servings): about $11 - or $2.75 per serving, not counting the ingredients I already had laying around.

Of course, during the process there were a few tedious things that popped up with foods I had not really used before.
  • About the lemongrass: Don't bother using your knife. Just use your cooking shears. They work wonders, I'll tell you what.
  • Ouch, it's galangal: Galangal (or Thai ginger) is like ginger only harder. It is very difficult to cut into. Take your time and use a knife with a very strong blade.
  • Why do these damn banana leaves keep breaking!?!? I've used them but once, for the Yucatec Maya dish cochinita pibil, and with that I wrapped a whole pork butt in it and put it in the slow cooker. Didn't have to be so neat. For this, I had to wrap each piece of catfish neatly in its own banana leaf parcel (about 8" / 20 cm square). Each f****ing piece. When you've gone through your third 8" / 20 cm square parcel because it keeps on ripping, you really just want to assault someone with a package of banana leaves.
I must confess that this was also my first use of a bamboo steamer. That's right: prior to this I had never used one before. Now I know not only how to use one (one other thing to use banana leaves for: lining the bottom of your bamboo steamer), but also what that "steamer stand" is in my second hand wok. I've never had occasion to use it before now.

The meal: amok trey

The first step is the sauce. For this, you need every ingredient listed above save for the fish and the banana leaves. Throw every sauce ingredient but the coconut milk into the food processor - and thank God I have a working one because my blender would not have liked this part - and grind them down to as much of a paste as possible. My light-duty processor could not break down every little chunk of lemongrass down very much, but for the most part it was successful. Next add the entire can of coconut milk, continue to purée, and then transfer to a pot to simmer for about 10 minutes.

It'll look like this.

Reserve half the sauce for later.

Your next step is to create the little banana leaf parcels that your fish will sit in. You need at least four of those 8" / 20 cm square pieces of banana leaf. In practice, you'll probably need about twice as much just to wrap the fish when the last one you used busts open and oozes its contents out everywhere.

Note to anyone who has used banana leaves more often than I have: please give me some tips on how to make these damn things more pliable. Mine kept on splitting open!

Once you have the catfish in the center of the square, top each of the catfish pieces with 1/4 of the remaining sauce (or 1/8 of the total sauce). Lumber through wrapping the banana leaf parcels up, and then place them in your steamer. Remember to line your steamer with parchment paper before putting the fish down! Since I had all those extra banana leaves, I just used some of those.

Using a bamboo steamer is much simpler than I thought it could be, and I thought it would be simple as it was. Just use however many baskets as you need, stack them in your wok (preferably on a steamer tray or stand, like the one above), and fill the wok with water up to the bottom of the steamer. Boil it, and then start the time. The amok trey needs to steam for an hour, and in that time I only had to refill the boiling water once. About ten minutes before serving, reheat the coconut milk sauce slowly. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

The result: I have eaten a lot of catfish before. Cajun catfish. Fried catfish. Stir-fried catfish. Catfish tacos. I have never had steamed catfish, especially when steamed by me. It takes on a whole 'nother texture! It's wonderfully soft and silky, and melds nicely with the coconut milk sauce. As for the sauce: it's not as rich as the nataing but it is rich, with sweet, salty and savory all battling for attention. With that, it's a nice surprise just how smooth the sauce is, apart from the bits of lemongrass that you just can't grind up completely. The sauce also goes great over the rice that you eat with it. For a vegetable, again it's good to go with a simple pickle, like the jícama-tomato one I made before, or the red pepper one that I based it off of.

So ends my first foodie "field work" in my Food Ethnography project. I now know a little more about an important Southeast Asian cuisine that I didn't really know anything about before. And that's the whole point of this exercise, isn't it? To teach myself - and y'all - about a cuisine you may not have been exposed to very much.

I haven't finished planning my next installment yet. Expect it come before or around Thanksgiving week. That should be a hint as to what it might be.

Sources of recipes -

Asia Cambodia - amok trey

The Elephant Walk Cookbook: The Exciting World of Cambodian Cuisine from the Nationally Acclaimed Restaurant, by Longteine De Monteiro and Katherine Neustadt (1998: Houghton Mifflin, New York) - jasmine rice, crispy rice cakes, nataing, jícama pickle