When Nick and I went to Cambodia last year, we weren’t expecting much in terms of the cuisine. We’ve been very spoiled with good quality Thai and Vietnamese food here in Chicago. Almost all that we’ve read about Cambodia inferred that their cuisine is inferior compared to that of its more well-known neighbors. We flew to Siem Reap for one reason, and that is to see the Angkor Wat. We figured we could make do with the food during our three day stay there.
We were proven wrong on our very first meal. We didn’t feel like going to a fancy sit down restaurant, so we decided to try out one of the makeshift stalls on the side of the road. We picked the place solely based on the wonderful smells coming from it. It was a lady and her son, they had a push cart with a gas burner, a side table with a huge chopping board and a bucket of water. There were plastic chairs and tables around them, about half a dozen or so, and these were all on the sidewalk outside a convenience store and about a foot away from the crazy traffic of Siem Reap’s fume spouting tuktuks.
I’ve read that Amok was the national dish of Cambodia, so naturally it’s what I ordered. Nick ordered pork curry. The lady grabbed the ingredients from her cooler and her display case and set about making our lunch from scratch. It took her all of ten minutes to get both our meals ready. It was good! Sooo good that we both cleaned out our plates and made it our mission to try out as much Khmer food as we can stuff in our faces over the next three days.
Fast forward to our last day in town, Nick and I signed up for cooking classes at Le Tigre Papier, a restaurant that offers cooking classes for 14 USD/person. You pick and appetizer, entrée, and dessert from their menu, and they will teach you how to cook your selection. The class started with a trip to the local market to get provisions as well to get as acquainted to produce only found in the region. This market is the real deal. Fresh chicken means you pick out a live chicken and either butcher it yourself, or have them do it for you. Once done with the shopping, we were taken to a building behind the restaurant where they house the student kitchens. Nick picked out green Papaya Salad for his starter, then Beef Loc Lac for his entrée, and Caramelized Bananas with Passion fruit for dessert. I picked Fresh Shrimp Spring rolls to start, my favorite Chicken Amok, and Sticky Mango Rice. Unfortunately, the instructor forgot which dessert I chose so Nick and I ended up sharing his. But no matter, we had more than enough food than we can eat, and each dish was better than the last.
A couple of the ingredients needed for the Chicken Amok is not readily available here in Chicago, so I had to make do with substitutes. Ngor is a plant only found in Southeast Asia, the instructor advised us that spinach or broccoli leaves would work just as well. Most major cities should have an Asian or ethnic market where you can get the more specialized ingredients, the rest should be easily accessible from any grocery store. The other tricky ingredient for this recipe is lemon grass. If your town has no Asian market, Trader Joe’s sells dried lemon grass. It works just as good as the fresh one, just make sure to double up. So here’s my take on Chicken Amok, modified to account for substitutes.
(Makes 4-6 servings)
2 lbs chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 ngor leaves, or substitute with a handful of spinach
1/2 cup oyster mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 small onion, chopped
2 tbsp amok paste, recipe below
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp chicken powder
A pinch of salt
1 stalk lemon grass, cut thin (Trader Joe’s sell dried ones)
1 small fresh ginger, cut thin
1 shallot, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
If you have a mortar and pestle, pound the lemon grass, ginger, garlic, and shallot together, otherwise use a food processor to make the paste.
Heat the coconut milk in a pan and stir in amok paste, sugar, and fish sauce.
Fry until brown.
Add chicken, mushrooms, onion, ngor leaves (or spinach),oconut milk, chicken powder, and fish sauce.
Simmer for 10 minutes.
Serve warm and enjoy!