Road Trip Cambodia: Amok
One of the national dishes of Cambodia is amok. The most common type is made with fish (amok trey) although other versions made with beef, pork, chicken, tofu or vegetables are readily available in most restaurants.
Amok is, essentially, a coconut-based curry steamed or baked in a banana leaf. When most people hear “curry,” they think spicy, but amok is very mild compared to the curries of India, Thailand and Indonesia. Depending on the cook, amok usually includes kroeung (the aromatic paste commonly used in Cambodian cooking) as well as galangal and kaffir lime leaves.
Two of the best amok dishes Edna Krabappel and I tried are pictured above. On the left is fish amok in its most common form from Romdeng in Phnom Penh (74 Street 174). The fish was firm yet moist. The curry itself was thick but still liquid enough to mix well with rice. Edna and I agreed that it was flavorful and very well balanced.
Romdeng is a restaurant that is a part of Mith Samlanh (“Friends” in English), a local NGO working to empower street children by preparing some of them to work in the growing hospitality industry in Cambodia. It is one of two restaurants run by the street children and their teachers. Romdeng focuses on traditional Cambodian dishes while its sister restaurant, Friends, focuses on Western and Asian dishes. If you’re going to eat and spend your money in Cambodia, you might as well do it for a good cause.
On the right is fish amok from Sugar Palm which is also located in Phnom Penh (19 Street 240). In contrast with the version from Romdeng, Sugar Palm’s fish amok was baked in a coconut shell and the texture of the curry was much firmer, almost mousse-like. It was, however, equally flavorful and well-balanced. Edna and I tried to pick which one we liked better, but one was just as good as the other, only the textures differed.
Sadly, I can confidently attest that the worst amok in all of Cambodia can be found at Kep Lodge in the small beach town of Kep on the southwestern coast of the country. While Kep Lodge provides great views of the Gulf of Thailand from its relaxing salt-water pool and pampers you with a lovely and attentive staff, Kep Lodge also embarrassingly serves the nastiest looking and tasting amok we encountered on our trip.
Carrots, bell peppers and cabbage were mixed into what appeared to be some sort of amok-like sauce from a can, no real coconut to be found anywhere. The entire dish was then baked until the edges were crispy (similar to the edges of a fried egg). The result was a tasteless, rubbery concoction with overcooked fish and mushy vegetables. While most of the dishes on the Kep Lodge menu were fine, even if not culinary masterpieces, one should avoid the amok at Kep Lodge at all costs. Stay for the view, but don’t order the amok.