When you ask anyone in Cambodia what their most typical dish is, you will hear “Amok”. So what is this exotic sounding dish? Basically it is a mouth watering curry dish that is served in a folded up banana leaf shaped like a bowl. Not only is the presentation absolutely gorgeous, but the flavor of chicken amok is out of this world.
In short amok is a way of steam cooking a curry flavored protein like fish, beef, or chicken in a banana leaf. It is popular in Southeast Asia.
A year and a half ago my family took a side trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia when we went to visit my daughter who lives and works in Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the highlights of our trip was riding the ubiquitous tuk tuk everywhere we went. It’s the most common form of transportation in many parts of Southeast Asia. For about $2.00 you can ride from point A to point B just about anywhere in the city; the experience is second to none.
On our first full day we ventured into the downtown which thankfully was very close to our hotel. We popped into a restaurant called “The Yellow Mango Cafe” which was conveniently located near the market.
We sat in a large balcony 0verlooking the street below. The menu offered an exotic array of local dishes as well as some international cuisine. We all wanted to try the local dishes, of course. I will admit, that this was one of the first times that we were stumped as to what to order. The aroma of the dishes carried on trays back and forth by the servers was mouthwatering. Finally when it came time to order I asked for a recommendation. The waiter immediately said “if you like curry, you need to try the amok.” No more thinking needed on my part!
When my meal arrived I was stunned.
I had never seen anything presented in such a way. The lovely banana leaf bowl holding my chicken amok was a feast for the eyes. And, the smell of the food was equally enticing. I took a bite and was instantly in love. The balance of spices was perfect to say the least. This was heaven in a banana leaf bowl. I enjoyed every bit; it was an exquisite not to mention exotic culinary experience.
Although exotic, it is not a difficult dish to prepare. There are just a few simple steps to follow. First you want to make the fresh curry paste and I like to use my mini food processor.
The chicken is stir fried, and removed from the skillet. Set the chicken aside on a plate while you cook and thicken the curry sauce.
Add the paste to the wok and it is heated up to bring out the flavors.
Next, add in the coconut milk, to the paste. While the sauce is simmering you can take about 2 tablespoons of the sauce and 2 tablespoons of corn starch and mix together in a small bowl to make a slurry. Pour this mixture back into the sauce and it will thicken nicely.
Finally after the sauce has reached nappe consistency add the chicken.
Of course, I was bound and determined to make this at home upon my return. But this time, I wanted the recipe to turn out just the same as the one at The Yellow Mango Cafe. But, how could I do that? Well, it just so happens that browsing the market I found a little cookbook on authentic Cambodian cuisine. Well, there are some ingredients that I could not find in my local grocery store, or even my local Asian market. So, I’ve tried my best to recreate the flavor profile. Honestly, I don’t think I did too bad even in the absence of the kaffir lime leaves. Serve with Jasmine rice.
Now, since banana leaves are sort of hard to come by in the northern US, I’ve had to make some adjustments.
Cambodian cuisine is delicious and has a great deal of French influence. The French were in Cambodia between 1863 and 1953. The food is infused with Southeast Asian and European touches. Take their curries for example, the use of coconut milk is prevalent and it creates a perfect balance when infused with the different curry spices.
Cambodia’s history is as rich as its cuisine. Its beginnings date back to the 5th millennium. Over the course of the centuries it was ruled by various dynasties. The magnificent temples like Angkor Wat, built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, are awe inspiring.
The temple also possesses the longest relief sculpture in the world, and is one of the most thorough examples of religious architecture in Asia. Today Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple complex.
If you want to check out other spicy chicken recipes, check out the recipe for Indian chicken xacuti
England’s national dish Chicken Tikka Masala is a favorite at my house, and also has some interesting history.
And yet another curry dish: Thai coconut curry chicken.
This recipe can easily be adapted to vegetarian or vegan buy substituting tofu for chicken.
How to make Cambodian Chicken Amok
This delicious Cambodian specialty is made with a base of coconut milk, and then infused with a blend of curry spices. It is traditionally served with a side of jasmine rice.
- 1 cup jasmine rice
Prepare jasmine rice according to package instructions. While the rice is cooking, prepare the rest of the dish.
To make the amok paste:
Place all the ingredients in a mini chopper, and blend thoroughly for about 2 minutes. If you prefer the old way, use a mortar and pestle. For the ginger I prefer to use a micro planer.
The paste will flow like a slurry with the added liquid. Add a little more water if your paste is too thick.
To prepare the chicken:
In a bowl whisk together the coconut milk and fish sauce. Set aside.
In a deep non-stick skillet or wok, stir fry the chicken until done. Transfer chicken to a plate.
In the same skillet/wok heat paste on medium until it becomes fragrant, about 3-4 minutes.
Next, add in the coconut milk mixture, and stir to combine.
Make a slurry to thicken the sauce: Mix 2 tsp of cornstarch with 2 Tbsp of the sauce. Whisk together in a small bowl.
Place the sauce and corn starch mixture (roux) back in the sauce and stir continuously until it has reached nappe consistency.
Once the sauce has thickened add the chicken back in and simmer for 10 minutes.
Serve with jasmine rice and garnish chicken with lemon zest.