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.

13 thoughts on “Amokalypse Now”

  1. Thanks for linking to me, but my otak-otak is a cheated version. I should really try to make it soon as I have loads of banana leaves (yay, I found it finally).

    But Amok is really good. Had in in Siem Reap.

  2. Watch me here I come (back)

    Damned amok. I will repeat it for ever, amok is normally made with gno leaf (aka noni leaf aka Morinda citrifolia.) Gno is native of South East Asia and maybe I’m wrong but I have never seen it marketed in neighbouring countries. This plus the fact that most local cooks agree that chilli is not always necessarily turn amok into a typical khmer dish (my point of view.)

  3. I told you he was a know it all!

    I wish I could have taken a photo of our staff meal at work tonight, it was Hamok? (spl?), the staff cook had made it in a huge tray and it looked like giant squares of pinkish fishy sponge, (with white coconut cream icing/frosting) it was yummy!

    oh yeah I couldn’t spot any Morinda citrifolia!

  4. I think your photo make Trei Ros a bit scary. In truth it is not that dangerous, its teeth are not that sharp and it does not have a sharp and pointy projections like for exampes a catfish.

  5. I tend to agree with Jo these days on the slok gno leaf. It’s essential and probably what most differentiates amok from hor mok.

    Gutbomb – I’ve frequently heard the thai hormok/hamok referred to as a “terrine” – Pim does so on her food blog and cooks it in a fancy Le Creuset terrine dish. I think David Thompson might either compare it to a terrine in “Thai food” or just point out that steamed Thai curries are weird.

    Sary – one of the fish research websites that I read says the snakehead fish are “traumatogenic” – which basically means that they’ll bite you once you’ve caught them, like sharks. Having been bitten by one, I agree that they’re not the fiercest fish around.

  6. When made with egg I agree that amok looks like the Thai hormok. But most of the time amok is served as a soup. When it is steam it can be made without egg (amok kchok) and served in a banana leaf that is fold into a purse and not into a basket. It hold only from the gelatin of the fish (that’s why it calls for cat fish) and look like an almost splited custard.

    Gutbomb, the hormok at staff meal tasted like what this time? Sugar or chili?

  7. I prefer the wet one too.

    Phil I am loving this “Steamed series”

    (You must have struck a chord to get the busy Jo to comment again)

    Oh and……

    Chili and I suffer EVERDAY! (sugar not so bad lately)

  8. Two kinds of otak-otak in Malaysia: a steamed ‘wet’ one like your amok/Thai hawmak there (the Peranakan version, as you point out), and one from southern Johor state, which is a kind of rubbery fish paste with chilies shaped into a sort of flat log, wrapped in banana leaf, and grilled.

    Nice fish pic!

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