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