Fish: A Fundamental Role in Cambodian Food Culture
Although many Cambodians love steamed fish recipes, It never appealed to me. There were many Cambodian recipes that call for fish but in my childhood, I hated them all. So, when I was young and fickle, I avoided fish (stewed, fried or steamed) 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 and/or steamed fish recipes 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.
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 like 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.
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 discolouration 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.”
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:
Spicy Steamed Fish Recipe with Lemongrass and Galangal
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 have 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?”
Main Ingredients for This Steamed Fish Recipe
The main ingredients for this sour and spicy steamed fish 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 cooking, 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 are 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.
Trey Chamhoi or what I like to call Cambodian sour and spicy steamed fish 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 recipes, 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!
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Fillet the whole fish, removing the bone but keeping the skin intake.
- Lay a large piece of banana leaves on the bottom of your deep steamer, making sure the banana leaves reach 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 the fish with the grassy stalk section of the lemongrass.
- 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.
- Transfer to a large shallow serving bowl and garnish with lemon slices, cilantro, and other asian herbs. Serve with rice.
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.