This recipe is adapted from the cookbook From Spiders to Water Lilies by Friends-International, a non-profit organization working with marginalized urban children and their families “to create innovative and exciting opportunities to build their futures,” including a restaurant project that is rediscovering traditional Khmer food culture.
If amok were a perfume, it would be the Southeast Asian version of a chypre, with top notes of citronella and coconut giving way to the herbacious middle notes of lemongrass, banana leaf, and green tea, and rooted a trio of earthy, musky rhizomes.
And if amok were a perfume, you might have to settle for the Imposters version, for those old enough to remember what that was. First, many of the ingredients may be hard to find, especially the eponymous amok leaves, so I’ve included some substitutions. Second, amok is traditionally a fish curry, but a vegetarian version is just as satisfying.
Amok leaves: the leaf of Morinda citrifolia, also known as nhor, noni, and quite a few other names. I’ve seen substitution suggestions of every leafy green from kale to cabbage, but young amok leaves are more delicate in texture and have the lovely bitterness of green tea, so I would suggest young dandelion greens or maybe arugula/rocket.
The rhizomes: fingerroot, galangal, and turmeric. Unlike classic ginger, these rhizomes are predominantly earthy and resinous, rather than spicy and citrusy. If you can’t find fresh, use 1 teaspoon (5ml) dried in place of 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh, and steep in hot oil to release the flavor compounds. You can also add in a tablespoon of fresh young ginger.
Kaffir lime and leaves: a lumpy green citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia with distinctive hourglass shaped leaves. The leaves are very high in citronellal, so the best substitute might be lemon balm or lemon thyme. The recipe also calls for the lime rind because you want the bitterness of the pith as well as the citrusy zest. Substitute with regular lime.
Fish sauce: almost ubiquitous in Southeast Asian dishes. The culinary equivalent of ambergris, it actually smells oily. For now, I’m using crushed dried shiitake, steeped in oil and smoked salt. I’ll keep playing.
Total time: 2 hours
Equipment: food processor or blender, toothpicks, steamer basket
2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil
1 tbsp (15 ml) smoked sea salt
1 dried shiitake mushroom, crushed into small chunks
4 dried chilies, stems removed
7 ounces (200 g) lemongrass, white part only, pounded and sliced (about 15 stalks)
1 tbsp (15 ml) fingerroot, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp (15 ml) galangal, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp (30 ml) fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves
12 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
1⁄2 kaffir lime rind, thinly sliced
2 tbsp (30 ml) palm sugar
1 cup (250 ml) coconut cream, plus 4 tbsp (60 ml) for garnish
1 lb (500 g) oyster mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces
8 banana leaves, plus extra for practice
10 ounces (300g) amok leaves, rinsed and pat dry
1 fresh red chili
- Prepare the faux fish sauce: Heat oil in a small saucepan until shimmering. Add salt, dried mushroom and chili peppers and stir well to coat. Remove from heat and let steep for 10-15 minutes. If you are using dried/ground rhizomes, add them as well.
- Make the lemongrass paste: Using the method of your choice, pound the lemongrass into a paste–mortar and pestle is traditional, but you can pulse in a food processor or blender as well. I actually use a stick blender in a tall cylinder container and pound/grind until finely chopped. Add the fresh rhizomes (fingerroot, galangal, and turmeric), garlic, 1/3 of the kaffir lime leaves and the rind. Continue processing until you have a wet paste. If you are using dried/ground rhizomes, you may need to add water to help it come together. Finally, add the oil, salt, mushroom and chili mixture and process until well blended.
- Prepare the curry: In a large bowl, gently stir the lemongrass paste, 1/3 of the kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, coconut cream and oyster mushrooms until the mushrooms are well coated. Let marinate for 1 hour.
- Make the banana leaf bowls: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cut the banana leaves into 9″ circles: stack 4 banana leaves on a cutting board, place a 9″ plate on top and trace around the plate with a pairing knife. Repeat with the remaining 4 leaves to make 8 circles total. Submerge the circles in the boiling water and simmer for 2-3 minutes until pliable. Drain and rinse in cold water. Stack 2 circles and fold up one end to make the first side of the bowl. Tuck the corners in and secure with toothpicks. Repeat on the other end.
- Assemble and steam: Place a steamer basket or rack in a large stock pot. Add water to just below the steamer and bring to a boil. Divide the amok leaves among the 4 banana leaf bowls. Add the curry mixture on top. Steam the bowls for 10-15 minutes until heated through.
- Garnish and serve: Gently remove the bowls from the steamer. Garnish each with 1 tablespoon of coconut cream, a few slices of fresh chili, and the remaining kaffir lime leaves. Serve with steamed white rice.
A final note on tasting:
Since the flavors of amok are subtle, it is a good opportunity to practice your tasting skills. Around 80% of what we taste actually comes from smell, and there are two passageways for food aromas to reach your brain: through the nose, orthonasal olfaction, and through the back of the mouth, retronasal olfaction.
Here’s the exercise: though it can be awkward at first, take a bite of curry then inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose (or, if you are averse to chewing with your mouth open, close your lips and inhale and exhale through your nose). Pay attention to the flavors that emerge at the back of your throat. You might get a bright pop of citronella, a bittersweet green, or a hint of camphor. It will change with each bite, and you will soon feel full even with a small serving.