Has our food supply gone amok? In recent years, we’ve seen devastating cases of food poisoning from E. coli and Salmonella. And now, we may soon see the arrival of the first genetically modified animal on our grocers’ shelves– the Aqua Bounty salmon. A hybrid of the Atlantic salmon, the eel-like Ocean Pout, and a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon, the Aqua Bounty salmon was engineered to grow twice as fast as its natural counterpart. Its producers would like to sell it anonymously alongside its natural brethren in your grocer’s fish case. Supporters say it will look and taste the same. Critics, who have dubbed this the “Frankenfish,” have two main concerns: potential safety issues for consumers and the salmon’s possible effects on the environment.
I’m not sold. The only amok I want associated with my food is the Cambodian fish mousse that goes by that name. This is one of my favorite Cambodian dishes. I’ve never understood why Cambodian food has never gained traction in the US. I think of it as a more subtle counterpart to the cuisines of its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors, with several unique dishes, including amok.
Because Cambodian food was the cuisine my husband and I had adopted as our favorite when we were in college, it carries special meaning for us.
We made a hole-in-the-wall Cambodian restaurant near campus our second home. It had fabulous food at student-friendly prices, and an amazingly long and delicious menu. It also had a charismatic host, a Singaporean man who had married the daughter of the restaurant’s owners. He learned our names right away, and would comp us extra food that he wanted us to try, including things that were not on the menu. As honorary members of their community, we attended weddings, heard about relationship problems and a lot of gossip. Some of the stories we were told seemed outlandish; we weren’t sure how true any of them were. He’d sit down with us as we ate our food. We heard about get-rich-quick schemes, get rich-slow-schemes, and were given unrequested life advice. From the stories he told, he had been everywhere, done everything, and knew everyone, including Important People around the world. We ate it all up along with the food, rich with the flavors of curry, coconut milk, lemongrass– and a grain of salt.
Years later, we went back for a visit. The food was good, perhaps even better, but the magic was gone. It turned out that our Singaporean friend had vanished. The explanation that we were given was another tale that was just short of believable. This time, the story came from the owner’s daughter, who was found unclothed one night in another man’s car. She said that she had been a victim of spirit possession, and that she had found herself in a trance and had no idea of how she ended up in the car. This was a tale too unbelievable even for our storytelling friend, and with that, he was gone, and with him his charisma.
We’ve found a new Cambodian restaurant in our new home. And while we’re not as deeply entrenched in its inner workings as we were with our first favorite Cambodian restaurant, we remain enamored of its food. The one dish we always order is amok. It’s usually made with a white fish fillet, but we’ve had it prepared with salmon as well. There is no dish prettier to look at than this delicate fish mousse steamed in a banana leaf bowl, and none so fragrant with its coconut milk, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, and galangal. It’s so good, it might even justify telling a fish tale.
* * *
(Cambodian Lemongrass Coconut Curry Fish Mousse)
For curry paste:
2 dried red chili peppers, soaked until soft
3 cloves of garlic
3 stalks of lemongrass, trimmed and chopped finely (discard woody tips and fibrous outer leaves; use only the first 5 inches from the base)
1/2 inch slice of fresh galangal
1 kaffir lime leaf
1-1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Thai shrimp paste
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1 can coconut milk
1 pound skinless salmon fillet, cut into bite sized chunks
Nhor leaves (these are hard to find; you may substitute kale or spinach)
4 round banana leaves (available frozen in Asian markets)
garnishes: julienned kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced Thai red bird chili
accompaniment: steamed jasmine rice
banana leaf bowls (see assembly technique below). Ceramic bowls are an acceptable substitute but banana leaves impart a subtle, distinctive flavor.
1. Make the curry paste by placing first 8 ingredients into a food processor or blender, or more traditionally by pounding with a mortal and pestle. Process until you have a thick, uniform paste.
2. Beat the egg together with the shrimp paste, then combine with the curry paste, fish sauce, and all but a few tablespoons of the coconut milk.
3. If using, make banana leaf bowls. Defrost and then soak banana leaves in hot water until very soft. Take 2 softened leaves and place the first with ribs facing horizontally, then top with the other the ribs facing vertically. Fold up about a 1 inch and pleat to create the corner of a square , then pin with a toothpick. Continue around the circle to create 4 corners, pinning each with a toothpick, until you have a bowl.
Repeat for a second banana leaf bowl.
4. Place each banana leaf bowl into a dish for steaming.
5. Place a nhor leaf (or substitution) in the bottom of each banana leaf bowl or ceramic bowl.
6. Arrange chunks of salmon on top of the nhor leaf.
7. Spoon curry sauce mixture evenly over the fish in each bowl. The fish should be almost, but not completely submerged in the sauce. (If you have excess sauce left over, you may use it to make another curry or refrigerate for up to three days.)
8. Steam filled bowls in a steamer for about 20 minutes each.
9. Remove from steamer and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
10. Garnish each amok with a tablespoon of coconut milk drizzled on top, and top with shredded kaffir lime leaves and sliced red chili. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.
Salmon print credit: Wellcome Library, London. Above, a grayling salmon; below, a Gwiniad salmon. Engraving by Heath.
All other text and images © 2010 Linda Shiue.