I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodian food. I was intimately familiar with the cuisine of Cambodia’s neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. But I had yet to be acquainted with the flavors of the small country sandwiched in between.

So when we decided to take a cooking class while visiting Battambang, I was looking forward to trying things I’d never tried before, and silently crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t involved any insects.

After a morning shop at the large open-air market for some ingredients, we set up shop at Nary Kitchen. Our menu: Fish Amok, Beef Lok Lak, fried spring rolls, and a sweet banana coconut dessert. No insects! Score!

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

I can’t say enough about the freshness of the meat and produce in Southeast Asia. One stroll through any market will be evidence of enough: fish are still wiggling, vegetables have just been picked, and meat is still in the process of being butchered. So although replicating these dishes may be difficult, I’ve put a recipe for Fish Amok and Beef Lok Lak below, if you’d like to sample the flavors yourself. I particularly love the Beef – the sauce and marinade are a delicious, earthy treatment that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Fish Amok
Serves 4

The heart of this dish is a lemongrass-based paste, which includes many ingredients that can only be found in specialty asian food stores. It’s worth the search! The flavors in this paste will knock your socks off, and you’re guaranteed to find other ways to use this paste as a marinade for other dishes. 

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 - 20 mins.

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 – 20 mins.

Lemongrass Paste:
4 stalks of fresh lemongrass*
4 kaffir lime leaves*
1 inch chunk of galangal or ginger*
1 inch chunk of fresh turmeric or 1 tsp powder*
1.5 inch chunk finger root, or Chinese ginger*
6 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp paprika
2 Tbsp Prahok (Khmer Fish Paste) or shrimp paste*

3/4 lb. of freshwater white fish
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2/3 cup coconut milk, divided in half
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Pinch of cornstarch

1. Slice the lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galangal, turmeric (if using fresh), ginger, and garlic.
2. Place sliced fresh ingredients with paprika (and turmeric if not using fresh) and fish paste into a mortar and pestle,
and pound until all ingredients become a very fine paste, 8 – 10 minutes.
3. Thinly slice the fish, then place in a bowl and add chicken stock powder, salt, sugar, half of the coconut milk, and the lemongrass paste. Set aside and allow to marinate for 15 minutes.
4. Take the remaining coconut milk and add a pinch of cornstarch. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until it thickens to a cream, about 2 mins. Add more cornstarch if needed.
5. Place the marinated fish into a saucepan and heat over medium heat until it starts to bubble and the fish is no longer translucent. Serve in bowls with a side of steamed rice.

*Many of the ingredients listed are readily available at Asian specialty markets. If you can’t find something, ask the grocer for an appropriate substitute. 

Beef Lok Lak
Serves 4

The marinade on the beef really makes the meat sing, and the dipping sauce gives the perfect acidic twang to an otherwise earthy dish. With ingredients found in most kitchens, this is an easy foray into the world of Cambodian cuisine. 

1 lb. beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 Tbsp mild hot chili sauce, or sweet chili sauce
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 tsp black pepper
6 cloves garlic, chopped

Dipping Sauce:
3 – 4 limes, juiced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp ground black pepper

Garnish (Optional):
4 eggs (optional)
6 leaves lettuce
2 tomatoes, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced

1. Place the cubed beef in a large bowl, and mix in all ingredients listed under “Beef,” except the garlic. Set aside.
2. Combine all ingredients listed for the dipping sauce, set aside.
3. Heat a skillet on high heat with approx. 3 Tbsp vegetable oil. Add garlic when pan is hot. Saute until aromatic, about 15 seconds.
4. Add the marinated beef to the pan and stir-fry until the beef is cooked through, about 2 – 4 minutes. Place onto four plates to serve.
5. Pour the dipping sauce into the pan used to cook the beef to deglaze, stirring to lift all remaining marinade from the pan. Pour into a bowl to serve with the meat.
6. Optional: Fry an egg until cooked to medium, and place on top of each serving of beef. Garnish each serving with 2 leaves of lettuce, a 2 -3 slices of tomato, and 1 slice of onion.

Beef Lok Lak is typically eaten by spearing a chunk of meat, egg, and vegetable onto your fork, dipping in the sauce, and shoveling the whole mess into your mouth. It’s usually served with steamed rice.

I hope you’ll give one of these a try — happy eating!