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Amok Trey – Cambodia National Dish – Day 54/Dish 28

March 3, 2010

Hello Adventurers!  Although we will revisit the region of Africa’s Great Lakes again in coming months, it is fitting to pay a moment of tribute to the strength of the people there.  In the face of extreme adversity and ethnic warfare, the common folks have managed to hold on to some semblance of normalcy.  The warring militias fight for different reasons but primarily it feels like a turf war with territory being the prize and human beings the obstacles.  We have seen countless examples of this throughout history and once the line of dehumanization has been crossed, it is horrifying witnessing the depths of depravity to which people will sink. 

Again this sober reminder becomes foreshadowing for our next country.  Cambodia is located south of Thailand and Laos and northwest of Vietnam.  To get there from Burundi we sail west across the Indian Ocean and enter the Bay of Thailand by the Straits of Malacca skirting Singapore and Malaysia.  We are deep in the heart of Southeast Asia and the humid weather is broken up by regular rainstorms that cleanse the air for a few moments and then plunge it back into a sauna like effect that purges the sweat glands and soaks through your shirt in 30 seconds.

Cambodia is a name that will dredge up feelings of horror in those who were alive to read or witness the 1975 rise to power of Pol Pot and his subsequent reign of terror.  After declaring independence from France in 1953, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under the young King Norodom Sihanouk.  During the build up to the Vietnam War, Cambodia remained officially neutral, but practically, sides were chosen and Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970 by forces aligned with the US.  This set the stage for his alignment with China and communist rebel forces, i.e. the Khmer Rouge in order to regain territory.    

The Khmer Rouge, began to rise from the ashes of overthrown monarchy and Vietnam War Era partisanship struggles between communist elements backed by China and democratic elements backed by the US.  The US bombing campaign in Cambodia was arguably either the thing that kept Phnom Penh from falling in 1973 to communist forces or the spur that urged Cambodian peasants to join the rebel forces and support their bid for power.  Regardless, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and seized control of the country.

Pol Pot and his minions are responsible for an estimated 1-3 million deaths in the years after 1975.  He emptied the cities and moved the entire country to rural agrarian work projects.  The term “killing fields” came from this era and mass killings, particularly of ethnic minorities and those who did not support the regime, were everyday atrocities.   To be perceived as an “intellectual” in Cambodia during this time was a certain death sentence.

During the end of the 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s Vietnamese forces battled fiercely with the Khmer Rouge to end the displacements of Cambodian refugees into Vietnam and to put an end to the genocide.  Formal peace agreements were signed in 1991 and stability has slowly returned to Cambodia in the past two decades with the aid of the international community.

Today Cambodia is a multi party democratic nation run as a constitutional monarchy.  Although Cambodia has a very low per capita income, the GDP is growing and discovery of natural gas and oil deposits will mean continuing growth in coming years.  Hopefully economic stability will provide a platform for continued advancement in human rights and living standards.

The national dish of Cambodia is indicative of its geography and natural produce.  The dish includes fish,  local spices and aromatics, and rice, the number one agricultural product here and in much of Southeast Asia.

I give this dish a difficulty rating of 2.  Some of the ingredients will be more difficult to find than others such as banana leaves and galangal.  Hopefully you have access to an Asian Grocer who should have most of the necessary ingredients.  A good whitefish is ideal for this recipe.  I used fresh fillets of Flounder, but other choices would include catfish such as Pangasius or Swai, Tilapia or Snapper.  I have added chilies and Keffir Lime leaves to the sauce to add delicious local flavor and spice to an already excellent base recipe.


Appearance:  4 out of 5

Aroma:  4 out of 5

Flavor: 4 out of 5

Total: 12 out of 15



1 Garlic Clove, chopped

1 Red Onion, chopped

5cm/2-inches fresh Root Galangal, chopped or 1/2 tsp Ground Galangal

2 tbsp chopped Lemon Grass or 2 tsp Ground Lemon Grass

½ tsp Ground Turmeric

1 tsp Paprika

2 tbsp Fish Sauce

1 tbsp Sugar

½ tsp salt

3-5 Keffir Lime leaves shreaded

Green or Red chilies finely chopped (to taste.  I used 3 for a bit of heat)

1 x 400g/14oz tin Coconut Milk

450g/1lb White Fish Fillets, e.g. (Catfish, Sole, Orange Roughy)

4-8 Banana leaves (depending on size) or 8 large Dark Green Cabbage Leaves


1.  Place the garlic, onion, galangal, lemon grass, turmeric, paprika, lime leaf, chilies, fish sauce and sugar in a blender or food processor and process until well blended.

2.  Add the coconut milk and process again until thoroughly mixed.

3.  Transfer the coconut mixture to a medium saucepan and bring to simmering point, stirring. Continue to cook gently for about 10 minutes until thickened.

4.  Meanwhile, if using cabbage greens, place them in a large saucepan, cover with boiling water and set aside to soften. If using banana leaves, cut into pieces about 20cm/8-inches square.

5.  Place the fish in a bowl, season with a little salt then pour over half the hot coconut sauce and mix well. Set the remaining sauce aside.

6.  Place 1/8th of the fish pieces in the centre of each leaf and fold the edges over to form secure parcels, making sure you tuck the edges under.  You can use toothpicks to close the packets if you prefer.

7.  Steam the parcels for 1 hour.

8. 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time, gently reheat the remaining sauce.

9. To serve – make a small opening down the centre of each parcel and spoon the remaining coconut sauce into the opening. Serve immediately with rice. 



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jihad permalink
    March 3, 2010 11:01 am

    The fish was SOOOO yummy! I really enjoyed this dish. Thanks E!


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