(and Curry Paste)
I love the ad for MasterCard that shows you the prices for things that lead up to a moment that is declared “Priceless.” Aside from being a great ad, it has given me something to say when an experience is so amazing that it leaves my as close to speechless as I’m ever likely to come. It was “Priceless” that I murmured over and over as I walked through the extensive, magnificent, exotic ruins of Ankor Wat in Cambodia. I had wanted to see Ankor Wat since I was in grade school, having seen pictures of the astonishing, ancient temple in National Geographic. I finally got to go a couple of years ago, and the experience was indeed priceless.
The more recent history of Cambodia made it seem impossible that I could be there. Only Hanoi (which I visited on the same trip) sounded as unattainable. But Cambodia is accessible—and eager to be accessed. With 65 percent of neighboring Thailand’s national income from tourism, Cambodia is counting on international visitors to help them pull themselves out of the hole in which they were left by years of war and repressive Communist rule. There is a sense of joy and anticipation everywhere you go, and people work with purpose.
Cambodia was so wonderful that it is almost hard to describe. Of course, Ankor Thom, the “lost city,” was fabulous. I was delighted to see the tree root-wrapped Buddha head that appears in many photographs of Cambodia, and I was amazed at the healing chamber in one temple; it’s a tall (2 or 3 stories), narrow, stone room where, when you lean against the wall and thump your chest, you set up a vibration that causes the entire building to thrum and resound like a great drum. It was truly astonishing. I nearly cried for joy upon entering Ankor Wat, the city’s main temple. But everything was beyond wonderful, from the miles of carved stone friezes to the arches and columns and, and, and…
I was also delighted by current Cambodia. Like most of Southeast Asia, it is lush, tropical, hot. The people are beautiful and hospitable. Homes are often simple, but are so shrouded in greenery that they are still lovely. Homes rely on stilts and shade to stay cool. Because water makes things cooler, there are also numerous homes on Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. There are entire towns afloat on the water. We toured extensively, waving to children swimming or adults paddling by in their boats. We visited a floating schoolhouse, where children sang us songs about the importance of cleanliness and good study habits, and a floating “zoo,” which combined half a dozen caged local animals (largely birds), netted aquaculture pens full of fish, and a small crafts and grocery store. There was also a wood-burning stove (on a wooden boat!).
The food in Cambodia was great. There is a lot of coconut and fresh fruit. There are hints of the curry one expects due to proximity to Thailand. Noodles are loved, but so are French baguettes, a reminder of colonial times. The food is not as hot as in Thailand, but it is still wonderfully flavorful. Our first day in Cambodia, we had lunch at Jasmine, a restaurant with a roof but no walls, with palm trees and flowers crowding the building. Among the half a dozen dishes they brought us was fish amok, which was served in a hollowed out coconut shell. A warm breeze mixed the fragrance of flowers with the aromas of the foods on the table, which made for a memorable meal. Fish amok is among Cambodia’s most popular dishes. I have had several versions, but the first way I had it, at the Jasmine Restaurant, has always seemed like the “right” version. If you can’t get to Cambodia, at least you can now get a hint of its taste. Enjoy.
1 lb. white fish fillets
2 Tbs. curry paste (recipe follows)
2 Tbs. fish sauce
2 tsp. sugar
2 large eggs
¾ cup coconut milk
½ tsp. salt
⅓ tsp. ground black pepper
4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
Cut fish fillets into roughly ½-inch squares. Place fish in 1 quart, oven-proof bowl. Whisk together all other ingredients, except lime leaves. Pour over fish and stir, to make sure every piece of fish is coated. Place bowl in the top compartment of a steamer. Steam for 15 minutes, stir, then return to the steamer for another 5 minutes, or until fish is cook and amok is heated through.
The fish most commonly used in this dish is one indigenous to Tonle Sap. Your best bet for duplicating the taste is a nice, mild, firm-fleshed white fish, such as cod, snapper, or catfish.
5 large dried red chilies
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 Tbs. finely chopped lemon grass
1 tsp. grated lime rind
1 tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tsp. turmeric
Soak the chilies in water for 30 minutes. When you take them out of the water, reserve the soaking liquid. Split, deseeded, and chop the chilies.
Combine chilies and all other ingredients in a food processor and blend to a thick paste, adding a little of the reserved soaking liquid as necessary, to keep the processor going. Alternatively (and more traditionally) this could be created with a mortar and pestle.
Refrigerate any paste not needed for the amok recipe.
This makes more than you need for the amok recipe, but it can be used to add a little kick to soups and stir fries. Or make more amok!
Galangal, a relative of ginger, would be more authentic than ginger in this recipe, but it is harder to come by in the U.S. Also, with garlic and 5 chilies in the paste, the difference would be difficult to detect.