A Spicy Yet Fragrant Steamed Curry with Fish and Prawns
Steamed curries might not be as well known as their simmered counterparts, but they are in no way any less delicious!
Steamed curries are a common feature in the South East Asian curry repertoire, and though they all share some similarities, they still retain distinct regional identities. Cambodia has its Amok. Thailand has Hor Mok. Malaysia has the Nonya version of Otak (as opposed to the grilled version found elsewhere in region). There’s also the Laos version called Mok, but that’s a version I’ve yet to make myself.
Although I was curious about the origins of these curries, alas I’ve not been able to dig up much about them. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in Hot Salty Sour Sweet attribute Khmer origins to Mok, while the exceptionally thorough and well-informed Leela over at SheSimmers suggests Indian, Moorish and Portuguese influences in Hor Mok. I suspect that there’s elements of all these at work, but they’re stopping us from the cooking and eating part, so we’ll move on…
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to interpret a steamed curry simply as being a coconut-based curry that is thickened with egg and steamed in a receptacle, producing a thicker, more custard-like texture than what we might associate with a regular curry.
At its simplest, curry paste is folded into coconut cream with an egg or two. Some versions might also include corn or rice flour as an additional binding agent. The use of fish or seafood is probably the most popular, though variations with chicken or vegetables are increasingly common too. The “meat” of the curry, if you will, can be left chunky for more texture, or it can be pounded or blended to produce a smoother, more mousse-like affair.
One area where you’ll see more regional variations is in the addition of fresh herbs – noni or amlok leaf, thai basil or betel leaf in Khmer, Thai or Nonya preparations respectively help to add distinct personalities to each dish.
This is certainly not an attempt to make an “ultimate” version of the dish. On the contrary, it’s more an attempt to simplify the approach, and allow cooks to then personalise the final result to their own tastes – I believe that the basic concept is actually quite versatile and accordingly I think that there’s room to play around and get creative.
So before we dive into the recipe itself, how does this all work then?
Curry paste ingredients
The choice of curry paste you use will dictate the soul of the curry, as it’s what’s providing all the flavour. In theory, this can be tailored to whatever you want – using thai red curry paste brings it back into more traditional Hor Mok territory, for example. The curry paste I’ve given below is perhaps a bit more on the complex side, but you can make it as complicated or as simple as you like. Maybe even just limit it to a couple of key ingredients, like lemongrass and chili, or add spices like coriander seed, star anise etc.
Eggs and binding agents
The addition of eggs is probably one of the distinguishing factors in the dish – after all, without eggs you’re heading towards standard runny curry territory. The eggs not only bind everything together when cooked, but almost soufflé a little during the cooking, adding a bit more texture to the finished dish. Some recipes call for the addition of cornflour or rice flour which can help to hold everything together and firm up the texture, but can be left out if you’d prefer things a little softer.
Finishing herbs or flavouring agent
Feel free to play around with fresh herbs like thai basil, coriander, even mint. Add more kaffir lime leaf or other aromatic ingredients if you prefer.
Choose your meat or vegetables
Your choice of fish, seafood, quick-cooking meat like chicken, or vegetarian options like tofu and mushrooms. As the cooking time is quite short, I’d avoid tougher meats like beef, though that may work if you sliced it really thin. Basically, choose something that’s going to cook through and not be tough. In terms of vegetable selection, I would be mindful of using anything with too high a moisture content, as it leeches out and makes the finished curry a bit wet.
So after all that, what I’m going to give you here is a recipe for a simple but well flavoured curry, opting for fish and prawns and extra egg for a more custardy result, with a simple garnish of extra lime leaf, chili, coriander and a squeeze of lime.
References and Notes
Here’s some of the key sources I used when developing this recipe…
Cambodia’s Famous Fish Amok in Banana Leaf, 2007, From Spiders to Waterlillies, Friends International
Hor Mok, 2010, Thai Curried Fish Custard and The Principles of Thai Cookery by Chef McDang, SheSimmers
Otak, 2010, Penang Heritage Food, Ong Jin Teong
Penang Style Otak-otak, 2009, Penang Nyonya A-Ma Secret Recipes, Plilip Yoong
Steamed Fish Curry, 2013, Thai Street Food, David Thompson
I’ve posted links below to some of the styles of steamed curry I’ve mentioned at the beginning as reference to each specific one – these aren’t necessarily the recipes I use myself, but they should give you a good idea of what’s involved in each.