Amokalypse Now: Khmer Surin

Fish Amok - Khmer Surin
Located in the middle of NGO-infested suburb Boeung Keng Kang 1, Khmer Surin restaurant has started to accept tourists by the busload. For anyone living locally looking to lunch on a lazy amok, this is as bad news as my ham-fisted attempts at alliteration. The huge villa seats patrons over three levels and while the second floor boasts the nicest furnishings, the best tables are on the top floor where you can rail against the Gods in their full view for not providing an evening breeze. Be sure to sit away from the edge of roof on a rainy night.

While the surrounds are fancy pants, the service can be burlap sack on a slow night. One evening the waiter responsible for our floor decided to take off his shirt and have a nap in the corner suggesting that he already knew that Australians have appalling record at tipping. On many nights Khmer Surin provides a traditional Khmer band to keep its employees awake, which to my uncultured Western ears sounds as romantic as playing a marimba with a live weasel. If you live in Cambodia, you get enough traditional music anytime there is a wedding in your suburb. The common practice for Cambodian weddings is to have a tent set up out the front of the happy couple’s house, serve 300 of your closest friends a few Chinese-Khmer meals and play about eight hours of Khmer traditional music at ear-bleed levels. This is only punctuated by monks, who say “hello hello hello hello hello hello” into the microphone at 4:30am and then rock the mike with seven hours of groaning in Pali, a language that few Khmer folk understand or enjoy. Come to think of it, I haven’t met any Khmer people with a pure love of traditional music either.

Surin gets top marks for nontraditional presentation. Their fish amok arrives on a divot-filled plate with 7 individual servings of the curry that challenges you to play a clever game wherein you battle your tablemates for the final nugget of fish. I was going to call the game “Hungry Hungry Subsistence Farmers”, but it doesn’t really have much of a ring to it when I write it down. The sad part is that this amok is all bling and no substance. It’s the MC Hammer of fish curries (minus the later career as a celebrity judge on Dance Fever and his current career as a blogger). Relatively heavy on the lime leaves, shredded chili and MSG but otherwise pared down to a very minimal spice blend, coconut and a small amount of yesterday’s fish, served cold.

Location: #9 Street 57, Phnom Penh. Fish amok, US$3.50.

6 rules of Cambodian street food eating

My reliable source of Cambodian food paranoia, the Lonely Planet Cambodia (4th Ed.) opens their paragraph on Cambodian food with the

…colonial adage that says ‘if you can cook it, boil it or peel it, you can eat it…otherwise forget it’

Following with bleak warnings against ice, shellfish, salad, steamed foods, empty restaurants and vendors wallowing in their own insalubrity. I don’t ascribe to the maxim that you should look at whether the vendor looks healthy because maybe he’s had a rough night on the Mekong whisky and I’d hate to deny him a round of his favourite tipple after an oily day behind his deep-fryer. Short of the vendor suffering something that can be recognised as transmissible via food, I’ll give them my time of day and fistful of riel. Originally I set myself the rule that I’d never knowingly eat in a village where somebody had recently died from diarrhoea but after consulting some World Health Organisation statistics on childhood diarrhoea mortality I realised that in most of rural and urban Cambodia, I would be going hungry a good deal of the time.

I tend to eat more food from the street in Cambodia than your average tourist as well as eating everything that the LP warns me against and tend not to ever injure myself doing so. I don’t have a cast-iron stomach and accordingly, I eat in a way that I consider sensible. Here’s my rough guide to surviving street food.

1. Heat – Hot food should be served hot. Your pho should steam. Your deep-fried banana should burn the tips from your fingers through the inadequate newspaper wrapping. If it doesn’t look like it might lift the skin off the roof of your mouth, don’t order it. Avoid foods from the streetside bain maries in Cambodia: generally you can get exactly the same dish cooked for you fresh in most small Khmer restaurants for less than a dollar more with better produce and surroundings to boot.

2. Cold – Cold is an entirely different matter. Ice tends to be a problem where the water has been contaminated prior to being frozen or the ice has been contaminated in storage or transit. If you’re having a bad day, both. Cambodia’s drinking ice supply is excellent: the only people that I’ve met who have been sick from the “ice” has been when it was combined liberally with a dozen beers. The only cold food that I avoid on the streets is the ice cream as vendors commonly unfreeze then refreeze their wares, coupled with the ice cream itself not being tasty.

3. Timing – In Phnom Penh, people stick to rigid schedules. Many are up at dawn and thus breakfast starts roughly after sunrise and continues no later than 8:30am. Breakfast foods, especially the ubiquitous pork and rice, are best consumed early. For most office and factory workers, lunch begins at exactly 12:00pm and runs until 2pm. Hitting a roadside lunch spot after 1pm often will mean that you’ll get the dregs of the soup and the fried fish that the rest of the locals rejected. With the exception of mixed fruit smoothie (tuk alok) and the occasional fried noodle vendor, there aren’t many late night street food options yet.

4. Other patrons – This is important for two reasons. Firstly, if people are spilling over onto the pavement and into the street, it’s an accurate indicator that the food is either tasty or underpriced. Even if the food is dirt-cheap, if people are pulling up to a stand in both Landcruisers and Honda Chalys, it gives a good indication that the food crosses economic boundaries and that it is worth people stepping down from their high (or in the case of Chalys, low) horse to dine amongst the plebs. Secondly, it’s a great indicator of how quickly the food turns over. Busy venues tend to be constantly cooking or at least refreshing their food as quickly as possible and thus you’re likely to receive fresher produce.

5. Family tag team – if the more than one member of the same family works at the stall, this is always an excellent indicator of a top notch venue. It means that their stall is lucrative enough to support the entire cohort. Be on the lookout for husband and wife teams, and award bonus points if they have kids in school uniforms (outside of school hours), because they’ll be the ones starting the next Jollibee.

6. Don’t eat stupid things – A good guide to judging the stupidity of a food is that if the locals believe primarily that a food will give you strength or vitality in the pants department rather than chiefly eating it because it tastes appealing. Some foods stay as provincial delicacies for one of three reasons: they’re either shit, endangered or they kill you. If snake’s blood was really that delicious, McDonald’s would have a cobra-flavoured sundae. I’m all for eating new and random (but not endangered) things but remember to keep your expectations very low and your bowels at maximum readiness, because when you do discover something that is loosely edible, it will taste like the food of the gods.
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Amokalypse Now: Anlong Veng

Anlong Veng’s claim to infamy is not its food. On the Thai border in Cambodia’s un-touristed northwest, Anlong Veng was the last home of the Khmer Rouge leadership and the location of Pol Pot’s unceremonious cremation on a pile of flaming refuse. A few surviving top cadres either wait for their day at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal or their death in the comfort of their own homes in and around this minor border town.

The food this close to the Thai border does show the influence of the northern neighbour. Chilli and lime leaves are ever-present and the food displays less of the palm-sugar sweetness of many Cambodian foods. Fresh chilli is sold at Anlong Veng’s Psar Thmei by the kilo rather than in more measured doses.

amok kchok from anlong veng

This fish amok from Pkay Preuk Restaurant on the edge of town was roasted in a foil wrapping instead of steamed (amok kchok) and was dominated by chilli with what seemed to be equal parts of the fermented fish paste prahok and fresh snakehead fish. Along with the herb slok ngor, Thai basil (chee krohorm) was abundant making for a richly aromatic dish. The amok was almost baked dry rather than mousseline.

Location: Pkay Preuk Restaurant, Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey province.

As a non-food related bonus: for anybody thinking of doing the loop from Beng Melea to Koh Ker to Prasat Preah Vihear by dirtbike/Camry during this hot season, the roads are all in good shape. The road from Koh Ker to Tbaeng Meanchey then Tbaeng Meanchey to Preah Vihear (Road 62) has recently been improved. It is still dirt with plenty of corrugations but not impassible as most guidebooks mention, making it possible to do a long day from Tbaeng Meanchey to Prasat Preah Vihear then onwards to Anlong Veng well before nightfall.

If you feel like taking it easier, there are a few guesthouses at the base of Prasat Preah Vihear’s mountain. The worst stretch of road is a few patches of potholes between Prasat Preah Vihear and Anlong Veng which could turn much nastier depending on how much of the timber-smuggling traffic takes that route. Anlong Veng seems to be booming at the moment with a choice of about five guesthouses and a few new restaurants.

A minor annoyance is that if you’re keen on visiting the “River of a Thousand Lingas” at Kbal Spean or the temples at Banteay Srei on the return journey to Siem Reap from Anlong Veng (Road 67), you’ll need to have bought a temple pass in advance from Siem Reap. Sokimex has probably not considered that tourists will be coming in via Anlong Veng.

Godspeed, you palm sap vendor

Sugar Palm

The ubiquitous feature of the Cambodian rice paddy landscape are the sugar palms which punctuate the flat landscape, skinny fists of fronds lifted in the air like antennas to heaven. They’re a versatile plant providing fruit (palm hearts and pulp from the husk), fresh sap (which can be taken straight, fermented into vinegar or wine, or cooked into palm sugar), and leaves that are woven into mats and roofing.

Palm sap juice vendor Cambodia

Vuth buys his palm sap daily from across the river and catches the ferry into Phnom Penh to vend the sap and a few blocks of palm sugar door-to-door. It is a marginal lifestyle – for his day of cycling he makes a profit of one to two dollars from the sap and a little more if he sells some sugar. He says his palm juice is the sweetest in Phnom Penh and it certainly is fresh. The naturally occurring yeasts that collect in palm sap begin fermenting the fluid within a few hours of extraction, resulting in a tart and sulphurous brew. Vuth’s had not begun to take on that unpleasant alcoholic note and was the sweetest I’ve had.

Amokalypse Now: frizz restaurant

frizz, Cambodia’s only Dutch-owned (and capitalization-free) Khmer restaurant is located on the strip of restaurants that I tend to avoid: Phnom Penh’s riverfront. I don’t avoid them because they’re at all bad or even targeted at tourists. I just seem to have fallen prey to the habit of eating inland and then heading riverwards for a digestif. As hot season approaches, so does the urge to chase the riverfront breeze. frizz is notable amongst the Tonle Sap-facing properties for both serving Khmer cuisine and for having Khmer vegetarian options on the menu.

frizz restaurant fish amok

On ordering, the waiter kindly informed me that the fish amok ($4) would take twenty minutes to be made fresh, which gave me ample time to have my sneakers appraised as dirty by the local bootlicks, buy a newspaper, be harassed by the limbless and destitute, and try on some sunglasses from the passing vendors. We engaged in a lively discussion on whether scraping the bottom of the barrel and atomising the market counts as entrepreneurialism.

The amok was topped with a huge slug of coconut cream beneath which lurked a large portion of fresh snakehead fish fillet and a chilli-heavy spice paste. None of the essential slok ngor leaf to be seen but a decent mousseline consistency. A previous amok from frizz had been steamed solid into a circular puck of curry and turned out onto the plate, thus bearing an unfortunate resemblance to an inverted can of coconut-flavoured Whiskas (“Gives his coat that Cambodian shine!”) but this version was nowhere to be seen.

Owner Frits Mulder also runs a day-long Khmer cooking class presided over by one of his staff, which is well worth it for food tourists and expats alike because it is the only Khmer cooking class in town. I took the class over two years ago and enjoyed it, more for the opportunity to bone up on my local herb knowledge on the morning market tour rather than the cooking itself.

Location: 335 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh.

Amokalypse Now


Amokalypse Amok from Malis restaurant

If there is one item of Cambodian food that incites real passion amongst tourists to Cambodia, it is fish amok (amok trei). The mousseline fish curry steamed in a banana leaf container is one of the few Cambodian foods that consistently strikes a chord with foreigners from everywhere. As much as I try to hook my visiting compatriots on sour soups and fermented fish, nothing paves the way into Khmer cuisine as smoothly as a good amok.

I know that I’ll be pistol-whipped by a motivated official from the Ministry of Tourism for pointing this out but fish amok isn’t uniquely Cambodian. Most people in the South East Asian region caught onto cooking coconut and fish mousse in a banana leaf at some point in history. Although its origin was possibly in the Khmer empire, Thailand does a practically identical version of it named “hor mok“. Peranakan cuisine also has”otak-otak” which generally uses fish paste instead of fish chunks. I’ve heard rumour that there is a similar variety of “pepes ikan” in Indonesia (distinct from the Indonesian Peranakan edition) but have not been able to find any corroborating evidence thus far.

In the Khmer language, amok only refers to the dish, whereas in Thai “hor mok” translates as something like “bury wrap” suggesting that on a linguistic basis, amok probably came from Cambodia’s immediate neighbours. A much less likely linguistic explanation for amok’s cloudy origins is to follow the trail of the word amok, whose genesis is from the 17th century Portuguese word amouco. Amouco entered into the Portuguese vernacular through their colonisation of Malaysia and is originally from the Malay amok (“rushing in a frenzy”). Could the early Portuguese settlers or Malay traders in Cambodia carried the recipe for Peranakan otak otak with them from Malaysia resulting in the more frenzied Khmer version? It is unlikely but not outside the realm of possibility as Portugal’s culinary influence in the region resulted in starting the pan-Asian chilli addiction.

The problem with writing Cambodian food histories is that is impossible to trace recipes beyond two generations for almost all Cambodian foods. Recipes in Cambodian cuisine are orally transmitted and when a generation forgets a recipe then it disappears. Generations also modify recipes to their tastes or simply due to the dictates of the seasons or their fortunes. In this context, claiming a food is historically authentic or not is ludicrous – it might be what their grandmother cooked but beyond that lays pure conjecture. While some believe that the Khmer Rouge era destroyed much of Cambodian cuisine, I tend to take the contrary view that due to recipes being so widely distributed in society combined with the unimaginable resilience of Cambodia’s people meant that only the most marginal foods disappeared.

Snakehead fish The resilient snakehead fish (trei ros), equally at home on dry land and in fish amok

The positive result of an orally transmitted cuisine is not only its survivability: it means that no recipe is ever canonised. There will always be subtle differences between neighbouring provinces or even neighbouring families. Fish amok is no exception with some recipes resulting in an almost-solid brick of curry or a soupier amok. Snail (chouk) is commonly used instead of fish. Some amoks are decorated Thai-style with shredded chilli and lime leaves. Some aren’t. More recently “tofu amok” and “chicken amok” have inveigled their way onto menus as a response to the fish-suspicious tourist.

My aim for Amokalypse Now: firstly, eat one amok each week for at least seven weeks and release a review of it on Friday, attempting to capture the widest variation of amoks. I promise to resist the use of the “running amok” pun. I’ll leave that one for the professionals.