It was that first bite of creamy amok curry that has stayed with me. I was at the end of a five month journey across Southeast Asia and feeling bitter sweet about returning home in a week.
It was back to work and routine, to familiarity, to certainty. To being still.
On an island off the coast on Cambodia with no internet access and limited electricity, the tumbling ocean and fierce lightning storms provided the entertainment. While still sticky and hot, the monsoon season ensured it that when it rained, it poured, and when it poured it bucketed.
Sitting in a hut on a hill, on an island with none of the tourism Thailand attracts, I would order amok curry each evening without fail. The Island was Koh Rong, with the kind of beach you dream about on rainy days while driving to work. Perfect powder-fine sand, palm trees, bath temperature water and few others.
Amok curry Source
Cambodian curries are similar to Thai, but not as sweet and spicy, and with less coconut cream. Not to say it’s any less the flavour of Thai food. Cambodian curries are all about the lemongrass, tamarind, ginger, lime leaf and cardamom – they’re less rich and heavy than Thai curries and more aromatic and fragrantly spiced. Heat is revved up with Kampot pepper over chillies but still packs a punch.
Cambodia’s national dish, amok curry, is so thoroughly thick and creamy it’s akin to savoury custard and achieved with adding an egg. The meat is traditionally fish and steamed until it’s perfectly soft and tender. Amok remains one of my favourite dishes in Southeast Asia.
Saraman curry Source
Muslim beef curries pop up all over Southeast Asia, often called massaman curries and the Cambodian saraman is related to Thailand’s massaman curry and Malyasia’s beef rendang. The difference is that it has roasted coconut added to the curry paste as well as the coconut cream and milk.
Where to eat in Cambodia
All recommendations I've listed are my personal favourites and are all still in business years later (I visited Cambodia in 2013). Of course the food industry of every country changes constantly and if you'd like up to the minute recommendations try Cambodia's top eateries on Trip Advisor.
Don’t miss Phnom Penh’s central market – Psar Thmei, with fantastically cheap eats, although you will be crammed in with your elbows tucked into your waist while people shove past with their groceries. That’s just part of the Cambodian experience.
I highly recommend eating at Rikitikitavi restaurant in Kampot, south Cambodia, if only for their saraman beef curry - one of the most wonderful dishes I have ever eaten. It had a perfect harmony of spices without too much heat to overthrow the flavours. I returned the following three nights to eat this dish over and over, I couldn’t tear myself away. I’ve checked the menu online – it’s still there two years later and while it was the most expensive dish I ate in Cambodia at $7, it remains the most superb.
Koh Rong Island:
If you head out to Koh Rong, and I suggest you do, stay and eat at Paradise bungalows - this is where I had that outstanding Amok curry.
Just a note; as a rule of thumb for eating in developing countries, don’t eat fish inland, eat it in coastal towns where it will be fresh. They don’t have the same rules and regulations for food safety and often the fish will just be carted around in a box on a motorbike. Fish deteriorates one day for every hour it’s unrefrigerated. Be safe, but don't be too paranoid. Try everything.