Project Food Blog Challenge 2: A taste of Cambodia in my Kitchen

Amok Trei

Do you know what I envy Aladdin the most? His magic carpet. Imagine for a minute if you could go anywhere, see anything! If I owned a magic carpet, the poor overworked thing would either be opting for early retirement or complaining to the Ministry of Magic. There is so much of the world out there to see and to experience – places, people, food. (My friends are rolling their eyes because they know that my travel itineraries bypass museums in favor of markets, ‘sights’ in favor of street food.) My biggest strength is that I’m not afraid to do things on my own – whether it is eating in a restaurant or traveling to a new place. I enjoy the opportunity to relax, observe, and interact with new people. I share this trait with my cousin Seema – smart, funny and one of the coolest people I know.

Cambodia

We live in opposite corners of the world – I’m currently in Canada and she in Singapore, so meetings are few and far between. Living in Singapore, she travels a lot (for both work and pleasure) to places like Bangkok, Bali, Vietnam. (Yes, I envy her too!) The trip I envy the most is her recent vacation in Cambodia – a journey she took on her own. Cambodia is a place I’ve been dying to visit – to be humbled by the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat, to take in the mountains and the rivers, to slurp at delicious seafood, to enjoy coffee and baguettes at the bustling riverfront. (No, I’m not confusing it with Paris – this is an influence of the previous French occupation.)

Ingredients Collage 3

When FoodBuzz announced that the second Project Food Blog challenge* was to tackle a classic from another culture, I knew immediately which country I wanted to pick. Since I haven’t been to Cambodia, I decided to bring a little bit of Cambodia to my kitchen. Cambodian cuisine (Khmer) shows a variety of influences – Thai, Vietnamese, French, Indian. It is complex yet subtle, with flavors built from the many traditional spices and herbs. A Cambodian classic is Amok Trei – fish covered with coconut milk and kroeung (a paste of herbs and spices) and steamed in banana leaves.

Ingredients Collage 1

Although I’ve eaten some south-east Asian food, I’ve never cooked any and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. A short trip to the Asian market turned into a long visit – I swung between total confusion and absolute fascination. Fresh herbs were marked with labels that said – ‘Fresh Herbs’. (Of course!) I was proud to correctly identify the kaffir lime leaves, thai basil and galangal, but the lemongrass threw me. I could almost hear the people around thinking ‘Amateur!’ as I plied them with questions. Even after I’d got everything I needed, I still wandered the aisles, taking in the names (Jin Jin Jelly, Pickled Snakehead!), sights and smells. Any more time and they would have to throw me out. It was a riveting experience and I’m definitely going back.

Ingredients Collage 2

Although I came across many amazing sites during my research, I used the Amok recipe Seema had sent me – one she got at a cooking class in Cambodia. The first step was to make the kroeung, which is traditionally made in a mortar-and-pestle, but not owning one here, I made short work of it in the food processor. I blended in the coconut milk and then left it to simmer for a short while on the stove while I channeled my fourth-grade crafts class and made a banana boat, using a handy stapler instead of the traditional toothpicks (illustrated instructions in the last picture). I came back to the heady aromas of garlic, galangal, lemongrass and coconut swirling in my kitchen.

Amok Collage

I layered my banana boat with cabbage leaves and gently nestled the fish over it. Thin slices of green and red bell peppers provided a colorful contrast. I fashioned a steamer out of a big pot, a metal stand and a single bamboo steamer basket I found at the market. Twenty minutes later, I could hardly stand to photograph the dish as the aromas kept compelling me to take a bite. One spoonful and the camera was forgotten. I sat cross-legged by the window, hugging my bowl and taking in its warmth and comfort. The fish was perfectly cooked, the cabbage and peppers provided texture and contrast and the herbs and spices laced everything with their subtle spell. I ate slowly, savoring each bite because apparently, you can’t have your Amok and eat it too. With a lot of will power, I hoarded up leftovers for lunch – I can hardly wait. Even without a magic carpet, I think I’m doing quite well for myself.

Amok Trei Collage

*PFB voting is now open. A big thanks to everyone who voted for me!

Amok Trei
Cambodian Steamed Coconut Fish

1 pound (450 gm) white fish fillets (e.g. cod, haddock, catfish)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 garlic clove
1 red onion
1/2 inch fresh galangal
2 tablespoons fresh lemongrass
1 fresh red chilli
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
13.5 oz (400 ml) coconut milk
2 banana leaves
1/2 red and green bell peppers
5-6 Napa cabbage leaves
2 Kaffir lime leaves

1. Season the fish with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. Make the kroeung: Roughly chop garlic, onion, galangal, lemongrass, chilli and lime leaves and then process to a paste with turmeric, fish sauce, sugar and salt in a food processor.
3. Add the coconut milk and blend well.
4. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring it to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat and cook until thickened, about 10 mins. Check for seasoning.
5. In the meanwhile, make the banana boats (instructions in picture below).
6. Take the coconut milk mixture off the heat and add the fish fillets.
7. Thinly slice the bell peppers.
8. Line the banana boat with roughly shredded cabbage leaves. Layer the fish and coconut milk mixture over. Arrange the bell peppers and lime leaves over the fish. Place in a steamer and steam for 25 mins.
9. Serve hot with steamed or sticky rice.

Boat Steps 1

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78 Responses to Project Food Blog Challenge 2: A taste of Cambodia in my Kitchen

  1. JJ says:

    Oops, sorry… this post is the one that says “challenge 1″ in the title but should be “challenge 2″ !!

    Best luck!

  2. I don’t think I could ever dare to tackle Cambodian cuisine. You were brave and you did a wonderful job. I love love love the colors of the photos! you sure got my vote, girl!

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks a lot! It was not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. Love the soft cottony look of your Paskha!

  3. Wow, I’m so impressed by your entry! :) I love how you made the banana boat, so interesting and it looks like it was fun to make. Your food looks delicious and your pictures are beautiful. Great job and good luck! :)

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks Lindsey! It was definitely fun – and don’t you love challenges where you get to eat your project after? ; )

  4. Joan Nova says:

    Excellent post. You’re sure to move to on to the third challenge!

  5. Winnie says:

    Beautiful job on challenge #2 Heena! Your coconut fish looks fantastic :)

  6. Deborah Dowd says:

    What a great post- you really did a good job with the photos as well as the dish! Good luck to you!

  7. Sara says:

    This is one of the best entries I’ve read for challenge 2. Love the leaf instruction pictures. Looking forward to voting for you again :)

  8. DJ Karma says:

    Absolutely gorgeous!

  9. wonderful dish! :) glad you decided to come up with something Asian :) congrats on round 2 and i hope we all make it to the third. all the best!

  10. I love this post. I ate a lot of Cambodian food in high school because there was a large Cambodian community where I lived. This definitely takes me back to dinner at friends’ houses!

    • tiffintales says:

      Oh wow! Then you must have surely eaten this. It tastes wonderful, doesn’t it? I’m just sad I’ve eaten it all.
      P.S. I’m from India and Uthappam is one of my favorites : )

  11. What beautiful colours in your photos! Best of luck. Theresa

  12. Ashanka says:

    Love your blog!! Its so you!! – warm, passionate, quirky and smart
    Keepin my fingers crossed for the food challenge!

  13. How pretty! good luck!

  14. Heather says:

    Absolutely stunning.

  15. I know this dish from a Thai cuisine and I so want this right now! You did a great job and love the banana leave bowl instruction. You got my vote girl!

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks a lot! Cambodian and Thai cuisines share a lot of common influences, and having just eaten this I know what you mean by the ‘right now’! ; )

  16. Jeanette says:

    These pictures are awesome and the recipe sounds delicious! I love steamed fish, and the presentation is beautiful. Love the idea of using staples, I’ve done it with toothpicks.

  17. what a wondeful post. so glad i found your blog through #pfb2010 . just started following you on twitter.

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks! Its so great to meet so many wonderful new people through this competition.
      P.S. I just read your post. Its beautiful!! So creative.

  18. Love this thoughtful, personal post complete with beautiful photos. You have a vote from me!

    My own entry was an Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun, soaked in rosewater, cardamom, and saffron syrup — and some very sweet memories.

  19. This dish looks fantastic, and I love the photos of your friend. I used kaffir lime in my dish as well, isn’t it fabulous? Definitely got my vote, good luck! :)

  20. Voted.

    Lovely flavors. Looks like it’s related to Malaysian otak-otak. Nicely done!

  21. Liv Wan says:

    Hello Tiffin,
    Your food always “wow” me. I love this dish that you made for this challenge and you’ve got my vote! Good luck in competition and I can’t wait to see your dinner party. :D

    • tiffintales says:

      Thank you!! Oh, I have a fabulous party planned. Hopefully, will have the chance to showcase it : )

  22. Such a VIBRANT gorgeous post! You’ve got my ♥ vote! Hope we both make it to round three!

  23. Pingback: Project Food Blog Challenge 2: Voting now open | Tiffin Tales

  24. malika says:

    I am Cambodian, and Trei Amok is one of my favorite Khmer dishes. I’ve seen several bloggers attempt to tackle the recipe, but I have to say, yours is the best by far! I hope you get to travel to Cambodia one day, because it truly is a magical place, especially for a foodie like yourself. Samnang Law-aw (good luck)!

    • tiffintales says:

      Wow! Coming from you, who must have grown up with this recipe, that’s high praise indeed! Thank you so much – I’m glad I could do justice to this wonderful dish. I definitely hope to travel to your beautiful country one day. Until then, there’s Amok : )

  25. Jason Phelps says:

    Love the pictures and the step by step. Good luck!

    Jason

  26. This is a gorgeous gorgeous post. I really enjoy solo travel as well–no one gets annoyed when I want to wander the markets and stare at the food. I was also recently in Cambodia and I can’t tell you how amazing it is. You should do everything you can to visit–the food are interesting, the people nice, and the sights astounding.

    I also do the same thing in Asian markets — they’re field trips unto themselves.

    • tiffintales says:

      Thank you!! Cambodia is one of the top places on my list – hopefully some day soon.
      I loved the Asian market – so many new things. Fun!

  27. Jun Belen says:

    Gorgeous, gorgeous post! Love the photos. I am a new reader and I’m glad PFB brought me to your blog. Best of luck in PFB!

    Jun

  28. riceandwheat says:

    Gorgeous post and I can almost smell the herbs from here! I’ve never tried making Cambodian food before, so I’m super excited to try this. Sending a vote to you and good luck!

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks a lot! And you’re right – all those herbs and spices make this smell like heaven! You should try it soon.

  29. Angie says:

    Absolutely beautiful….the colors are stunning!

  30. I love the banana boat. Great post, great food, great photos.

  31. Wow, what an amazing job, not just with the recipe, but with the execution, the explanation and the photography. This was an outstanding post.

  32. Looks great, and your pictures are gorgeous! Best of luck, you’ve definitely got my vote!

  33. Wow – your photos are absolutely stunning! Great post, loved the writing too :) Got my vote!

    • tiffintales says:

      Thanks a lot! Am just going through your blog – it’s so well-written. And I love your PFB posts too. Good luck!

  34. what a great idea. i love your photos and i think you have a really original post here.
    you get my vote :)

  35. Mariko says:

    Wow. That looks so cool! I’d love to make that if it came out as good as yours. And I like that you tackled something so original. Great work.

  36. I voted for you days ago but wanted to take a quick minute to tell you how absolutely good this looks. I LOVE the way coconut and a flaky white fish taste together, especially with lime. If decent fish weren’t so damn expensive here in the Midwest I would be doing this weekly. Beautiful post.

    • tiffintales says:

      Thank you!! It’s so great that you took the time to come back and leave this (thoroughly honest) compliment ; ) Fish and coconut is one of my favorite combinations too.

  37. Jeanne says:

    This looks so beautiful and tasty! I’m really curious to try Cambodian food, now. Excellent work on this challenge, you earned my vote!

  38. Ed says:

    Unique and excellent pictures! You got my vote!

  39. Jean says:

    Better almost-late than never! Just voted for you and it’s well-deserved. Your entry for this challenge is beautiful. :-)

  40. Pingback: Project Food Blog Challenge 5: Tales of a Traveling Pizza | Tiffin Tales

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