Khmer Food: Steamed Fish with Lemongrass and Galangal in Spicy Lime Sauce

Khmer Food: Steamed Fish with Lemongrass and Galangal in Spicy Lime Sauce

Steamed fish. Fried fish. I hate Fish.

During my childhood, I avoided fish (stewed, fried or steamed fish) like Cookie avoided jalapeno peppers. When she’s being a pest like ripping up toilet papers, I would hold a freshly broken jalapeno pepper in front of her and she would back away quickly. The sides of her lips quirking up in disgust.

The exact same reaction I unconsciously make every time I see my mother cleaning and chopping fishes to make our dinner. And every time I tell my mother I don’t like fish, she always says. “Don’t worry, your taste will change, and you will love it.” And of course, she would then continue to make more seafood dishes for the whole week.

In regards to food, I’ve always thought that our tastes and likes are largely dictated by genetics, and not from our environment, upbringing or cultural norms. My parents loved fishes. Cambodians loved fishes. The whole of Cambodia features 461 freshwater fish species, 468 marine species and is the fifth in the world in regards to inland fisheries productivities. Fish and seafood, in general, plays a fundamental role in our diet. And Cambodians are the largest consumers of freshwater fish per capita in the world.

Fishing boat in Kep Cambodia

Yet, there I was sitting at the dining table turning my tilapia into an igloo with my fork. My mother shaking her head, probably wondering if I really came from her womb or if she imagined it. I hated fish just as much as I hated black liquorice.

Years later, in my mid-twenties, in an upscale Japanese restaurant for my 8th anniversary with Jose (my childhood sweetheart), my palate changed. I tasted cooked salmon so velvety and moist, its large soft chunks flaked and melted into butter on my tongue, unleashing a current of delicate flavours –savoury, salty with a hint of sweetness. I took some more large pieces, savouring every bite and gasped in shock when my fork came up empty. I had finished a whole fish to myself. Jose grinned at me and teased, “Maybe you do love fish, just not your mother’s.”

Teasing or not, I had to test his theory. We went to my mother’s place the very next day. She made her favourite fish recipe, steamed fish with lemongrass and galangal in spicy lime sauce wrapped in banana leaves. And. I. loved. Every. Bite. A childhood of avoidance, and here I was years later stuffing my face with steamed fish in my mother’s dining room. My child self would have gaped at me.

My mother was right. My palate evolved. But I’ve learned an important lesson in the process. There is value in enjoying the food you had previously not enjoyed, and there are many foods out there that are worth re-discovering.

Since then, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to trying every food I’ve ever rejected. And even if the food doesn’t end up on my favourite list, I’ve learned to enjoy it in a casual way. In moderation. Now, I eat pretty much anything the seas, lakes, streams, and mud could serve forth –grasshoppers, snails and frogs definitely included since travelling through Cambodia. In fact, I am now one of the extreme seafood eaters. The ones who likes to slurp up the juices secreted away in shrimp heads because their noggin tastes like the essence of the sea.

And I am happy to say, that through the years, slowly, I’ve developed an appreciation for many new and unique food experience —a reverence for food, and food culture.

What food did you hate as a child? Do you enjoy it now?

I would love to reminisce more about my childhood and my obsession with food, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what you came here for. (I secretly hope you do though) You came here because you’re enticed by that beautiful image (I know, ego much?) of my mother’s favourite steamed fish recipe: steamed fish with lemongrass and galangal in spicy lime sauce or Trey Chamhoi. But before I get to the recipe, let us talk about fish.

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Fish shopping: Should I Buy Fresh or Frozen Fish?

There is something thrilling about the versatility of whole fish, and the ease with which it can be cooked. Most fish takes no more than a few minutes, either steamed, in a frying pan or grill, yet their flavours and textures are so diverse depending on the cooking method. In fact, fishes come in so many verities that it’s quite possible to eat fish every day for a whole month without repeating the same species. Isn’t that neat?! I definitely can’t say that about cows or pigs. Although in living with moderation, that’s probably not healthy.

When I first started cooking with fish, the first thought that came to my head was, “How am I suppose to clean this?” Fish seemed difficult to prepare or even to select since there are so many varieties, and their flavours and texture vary greatly.

When shopping at the farmer’s market, I always ask my fish supplier to descale, clean and fillet my fish for me. Usually only on days when I’m too lazy to go through the process myself. However, that’s something my mother tsked at, “You’re not learning!”

I don’t know if other people are like this, but personally, I enjoy being reprimanded by my mother. I love annoying her purposely during shopping trips, especially in supermarkets. It’s always entertaining.

She would eye the fresh fish, poking and prodding it with her plastic-bag-covered-hand, grilling the counter guy on just how fresh they were. I don’t know if it’s an Asian thing, but I swear, all my Asian friend’s mother does it. It’s a thing. Anyways, while she’s grilling the guy, I would grill her about why she wouldn’t go fishing with me when there’s so many fresh fish in the lake. No poking or prodding necessary. I love her annoyed look coming in my direction because there’s always a hint of a smile hidden underneath it. 

In the end, we always buy the frozen fish in the seafood section because most of the time, the quality or the price just couldn’t meet her approval standard. Yet, the frozen fish always does. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, according to seafoodhealthfacts.org, there are many factors why it may be more right, both in freshness and in your pockets:

“Commercially frozen fish is quickly frozen at its peak freshness. Consumers can now find a wide choice of top-quality and wholesome seafood in the freezer case. When properly thawed, frozen fish is comparable to fish that was never frozen. Both exhibits the qualities of freshness described previously. Frozen fish and shellfish should be packaged in a close-fitting, moisture-proof package. Select packages from below the load line of the freezer case. Look for packages that still have their original shape and the wrapping intact with little or no visible ice. Seafood should be frozen solid with no signs of freezer burn, such as discoloration or drying on the surface, and have no objectionable odour. The same guidelines apply for frozen prepared seafood, such as crab cakes, breaded shrimp, or fish sticks. Do not allow the package to defrost during transportation. When properly thawed, frozen fish can be comparable to fish that was never frozen.”
seafoodhealthfacts.org

In fact, okay maybe not fact, but in Canada at some supermarkets, most seafood arrives at the grocery store frozen. It is then thawed out and placed on ice, arranged attractively to make it look fresh. I bought a ‘fresh’ tilapia from B & T in Hamilton (yes, I’m naming names), and by the time I got it home, only an hour later, the fish was already smelling funky. The meat already feeling like it’s been chewed up and stuffed back into its skin —so soft that our fingerprints were left in areas we prodded. It may have just been my experience, but personally, it makes no sense to purchase it that way. 

If I didn’t fish it out of the lake myself, I’m buying my fish frozen. 

How to Make Trey Chamhoi: 
Steamed Fish with Lemongrass and Galangal in Spicy Lime Sauce

As usual, to keep it authentic, I will be using mudfish/snakehead fish, (Trei Ros in Cambodian) —frozen of course. You could also opt for Sea Bass, Tilapia or any freshwater fish. But personally, snakehead fish is always a winner with me. Although it has the same white, flaky meat as tilapia, snakehead meat is slightly more firm, and although both has a mild flavour, the tilapia leaves a slight fishy aftertaste whereas you wouldn’t detect any fishy aftertaste from the snakehead meat. It is one ugly predatory fish, but when cooked, it is absolutely delicious. I found this great article on snakehead fish if you want to learn more about it. Aptly titled, “Snakehead Taste Test: Can a Fish This Ugly Taste That Good?”

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Main Ingredients for This Steamed Fish Recipe

The main ingredients for this recipe are lemongrass, galangal and cilantro. They’re not replaceable if you want the exact authentic taste. However, if you’re experimenting with food (I always encourage it), you can replace cilantro with any herbs that are fresh tasting. 

If you prepare a lot of Asian cuisines, you will be familiar with lemongrass. We use it in our cuisine to not only perfume the dish with its delicate fragrance but also to infuse a soft lemony flavour to dishes such as curries, marinades, sauces and soups.

Even if you prepare many Asian dishes, you might still not be familiar with galangal. Prominently used in Cambodian and Thai cookings, galangal infuses a certain clean zingy, and spicy herbal note to dishes. Part of the ginger family, it looks very similar to ginger but stockier with a smoother almost translucent skin. Taste wise, it is much more astringent than ginger and more fibrous and tough in texture. You can find fresh galangal in most Asian supermarkets, however, if you can’t find it fresh, look for the brine version in the canned section of the supermarket. If all else fails, it does come in powdered form. I would like to say you can replace it with ginger in a pinch, but I just can’t. The taste will be completely different.

How to Handle Galangal

Unlike ginger, it is tough, so a sharp knife and great care are needed when cutting through its soft woody texture. To prepare galangal for cooking, wash skin thoroughly and crush it with the side of your knife or a pestle to release its scent and soften its texture. Once lightly crushed, slice it into thin slices. The skin need not be removed unless you have a preference for skinless galangal. It is usually used as a flavouring agent and should be removed from the prepared dish before serving as it’s inedible woody texture does not soften with cooking. There are exceptions of course. For example, when making kroeung, it is so finely sliced and grounded to a pulp that you wouldn’t be able to feel its woody texture. To store galangal, wrap it in plastic or place it into a plastic bag and refrigerate. It should last for up to 3 weeks. It is better frozen while fresh. Frozen, it can last up to 3 months.

How to Prepare a Whole Fish

If you don’t like handling whole fish, fish fillets are also great for this recipe. However, if you’re handling whole fish, you will find that most supermarkets will sell fish that area already scaled and gutted. Some frozen fish are already cleaned and gutted, and some aren’t. So if you’re handling a whole fish that isn’t pre-cleaned, clean the fish first by de-scaling, cutting the fin and gutting the innards out. Then fillet the fish —remove the bone, but keep the skin intake. You could leave the head on, but for this recipe, I didn’t since I wanted to use it for another recipe that required fish broth. If you see any fine bones on your fillet, it is best to remove it now rather than later when you’re eating it. I hate boney surprises.

After laying the sliced galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves over the fillet, I placed the remaining fillet on top, skin-side up. Tie the fish with the remaining crushed lemongrass and lay the remaining kaffir lime leaves on the side. 

How to Steam Fish

Here’s a timing method that I use for steaming fish: 1-inch thickness = 10 minutes cooking time. I prefer my steamed fish moist and juicy, not flakey. I find that when you cook to the point where the fish starts to flake, you tend to sacrifice its juiciness. Ideally, I remove the steamed fish when the fillet turns opaque, about to flake but not flaking. This is because the fish will continue to cook even after it is removed from direct heat, especially if it’s still covered. This is why I like to have all my garnishes prepared ahead of time so that I can serve it straight away. 

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Trey Chamhoi or steamed whole fish with lemongrass and galangal is a big favourite for Cambodians. Like Cambodian curry, it is mostly served at holiday meals, weddings and special occasions. At my mother’s house, it was served once a week since she doesn’t eat red meat due to her health condition (she’s type 2 diabetes). While there are many variations of steamed fish, this one is also one of my favourites. I love the fresh earthy notes, the little bite from the red pepper and the balance of savoury with a hint of sweetness.

This main meal is best served with a steaming bowl of hot rice with a side of salad. But then again, we Cambodians eat a lot of fresh vegetables so salads are always a must with any meal. Bon Appetite!

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Cambodian steamed fish with lemongrass & galangal in spicy lime sauce wrapped in banana leaves. A healthy Khmer food recipe with anecdotes and infos on how to steam fish & more.

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4.75 from 8 votes
Khmer Food Steamed Fish with lemongrass and galangal in banana leaves
Print
Steamed Fish in Spicy Lime Sauce
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
30 mins
Total Time
45 mins
 
Steamed Fish with lemongrass and galangal covered in a spicy lime sauce, wrapped in banana leaves.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Cambodian, Khmer
Servings: 4 people
Calories: 800 kcal
Author: Yuen Mi | A Travel Diary
Ingredients
Main Ingredients
  • 1 whole Snakehead Fish, Sea Bass or Tilapia
  • 4 thin slices of galangal
  • 3 stalk of lemongrass crushed
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1/4 cup cilantro
Sauce Ingredients
  • 2-5 bird eye chilli pepper
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoon cilantro just the roots
  • 2 teaspoon lemongrass crushed and sliced
  • 3 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 tablespooon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
Instructions
  1. Make the sauce: in a mortar and pestle, pound the bird's eye chilli pepper, lemongrass, garlic cloves, and cilantro roots until crushed into a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl. Add in the rest of the sauce ingredients and stir until thoroughly combined.
  2. Fillet the whole fish, removing the bone but keeping the skin intake.
  3. Lay a large piece of banana leaves on the bottom of your deep steamer, making sure the banana leaves reaches the top of the rim. Place one of the fish fillets, skin side down on the banana leaves. Cover the fish fillet with galangal and the bulbous section of the lemongrass (sliced in two) and half the kaffir lime leaves. Place the remaining fish fillet on top, skin-side up. Arrange the remaining kaffir lime leaves around the fillet and tie t he fish with the grassy stalk section of the lemongrass.
  4. Steam in a steamer for 10-15 minutes then pour over the sauce and steam for another 10-15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked thoroughly, but still moist and juicy.
  5. Transfer to a large shallow serving bowl and garnish with lemon slices, cilantro, and other asian herbs. Serve with rice.
Recipe Notes

I don't have a large steamer. So I cooked mine in the oven: Place another glass ovenware on the bottom rack of the oven and fill it with water. Pre-heat up the oven to 375 degrees. Once the oven is heated, place the prepared and covered fish (with more banana leaves) on the middle rack of the oven. The oven will steam so be careful if using this method. 

 
Summary
Steamed Fish with Lemongrass and Galangal in Spicy Lime Sauce
Article Name
Steamed Fish with Lemongrass and Galangal in Spicy Lime Sauce
Description
Cambodian steamed fish with lemongrass & galangal in spicy lime sauce wrapped in banana leaves. A healthy Khmer recipe with info on how to steam fish & more.
Author
Publisher Name
A Travel Diary
Publisher Logo

28 Comments

  1. I must say I love this recipe, thank you for sharing this tremendous recipe with us. I usually cook fish but I have tried this way so the next time i am gonna use this food recipe to make fish. And i really appreciate the way this article is written and even i don’t have a steamer so I am also gonna use a oven instead. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad to hear you’re trying out this recipe. This spicy steamed fish is such a healthy and delicious dish. I’m always using the oven to steam things or finding different ways to steam lol. I really do need to invest in a steamer. Will have to look for one now since I actually do make steamed food a lot!

  2. I didn’t know much about Cambodian food, but reading your post, I would love to explore it. Sadly I am a vegetarian, so can’t try this one

  3. It looks so delicious. I will definitely get that recipe to try it. Hope it looks as good as yours.

  4. Excellent. As I a child I also hate the fish items. later I discovered that this is just because of the cooking style. I love to have sea fish cooked with spices. I would always taste fish item when I am on visit to a country.

    Thank you for the detailed recipe.

  5. Omg can we say yum?!?! I just love fish and I’m always looking for new recipes!!! Must give yours a try! Deliciousness

  6. I love seafood. I am the kinds who will leave aside the prawns but loom forward to the juice from the shrimp head. So all in all i think i absolutely must visit Cambodia. And this recipe will keep me happy and satisfied till then.

  7. This looks like such a unique dish for my family. I do cook fish but usually stick to salmon so this would bring something new to our kitchen table. As a child I always hated onions. To this day I still hate onion!

  8. I’m not a big fish eater but I have to admit this steamed fish cooked in banana leaves looks absolutely delicious! I need to try this!

  9. Yum this looks really good. I am not the biggest fan of fish but I’ll try it every now and again. This looks amazing though, I know my husband would love it!

  10. This looks so good! I love trying new foods everywhere I go and I would love to try this one out!!

  11. That is such a unique recipe. The spicy lime sauce sounds like it makes the whole dish and pulls everything together. I’m not a huge fish eater, but I’d definitely try that!

  12. This seriously has my mouth watering… and now I’m hungry! It looks and sounds so delicious. I’m glad your tastebuds developed to enjoy fish – I’ve always loved fish… but I can totally understand why some people don’t.

  13. What an exotic recipe! My husband and I love fish, usually fresh! I have never had anything like this!

  14. I don’t think I’ve had this dish before and it sounds packed with flavor! I don’t really mind getting frozen fish but it would always be nice to get fresh ones.

  15. I love all seafood and this dish looks amazing. I agree that our palate’s can change as we get older. I have heard part of it is to do that we lose taste buds as we get older so we crave more and more flavors in our food to make up for the lost taste buds.

  16. I absolutely hated green beans as a kid, and I actually still dislike them. I also used to hate cucumbers, but not I can’t get enough. I’ve also expanded my palette for fish so this recipe is perfect. I love the flavor of lemongrass and lime.

  17. Your story is my story. My palette changed and I was able to enjoy the foods my family loved all through my childhood! Isn’t that an awesome thing?

  18. Unfortunately I never came around to the idea of fish and still loathe it now but I married a guy who loves it so I have to deal with it around the house :p

  19. I used to be very similar with my feelings towards fish, I was never a fan as a kid but now I eat it even if I don’t love everything x

  20. This looks amazing!! I love the story of you learning to like fish, the same thing happened to my partner and now he eats everything! Once he realised that the things he thought he didn’t like tasted nce, there was no stopping him!

  21. As someone who loves to try new cuisines and dishes I really hope to be able to try “Khmer Food” soon. It sure looks so inviting and I cant wait to be able to add this to my experiences.

  22. Love this! It’s amazing how taste buds change! I hated cauliflower as a kid, but now I can’t get enough of it! My taste buds changed after pregnancy, too. I loved avocado before but now can barely look at it. Hoping it changes again!

  23. This looks delicious! I love seafood! Our tastes really do change a lot as we grow. I remember I used to hate avocado and tomato but now I love them both!

  24. I was a super picky eater growing up. It took me years to finally even try some of things that I have, and enjoy now. However, I’ve never avoided fish. Living in the south, my dad fished every weekend, and during the week, we enjoyed fish for dinner. I will say though, I’ve never had steamed fish before. Sounds delish!

  25. That fish looks so fresh and delicious. I cook filets and I like tilapia but the lemongrass and galangal sounds like a great way to cook fish.

  26. I love this recipe. I am not Khmer but I am married to a first generation Cambodian and have learned all the Khmer recipes from my in-laws. My husband hated soup when he was younger and just like you his palate has evolved over time. Now he LOVES his mama’s soup! LOL. Thank you so much for all the wonderful recipes! It’s nice to have a traditional Khmer recipe to follow when I forget the ingredients.

    1. I’m glad you found my page and it’s of help! It’s funny how our palate changes over time. The food you wouldn’t like as a child, you instantly love. It seems insane, but I do love re-discovering food! Hope you keep coming back and spread the news because there are way more recipes I want to share <3 😀

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