Southeast Asian Fish in Banana Leaf - SF Dish of the Month August 2013
The SF Dish of the Month for August 2013 is Southeast Asian Fish in Banana Leaf (eg. mok pa, amok, pepes inan). For more details, see charliemyboy's (effective) "sales pitch" here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/911285#8230633
The goal of Dish of the Month is to collectively try as many versions of fish in banana leaf as possible during the month of August! So let's start exploring and eating—report back with reviews and photos.
For those who have tried this dish before, this will be an opportunity to try different versions. And for the many people who have never tried it, this will be a great opportunity to taste something new.
Here's a link to the vote: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/911285
This week I was able to compare the Amok at Chez Sovan in San Jose:
with the Amok at Battambang in Oakland:
I think that the amok at Chez Sovan is much superior: better gelatine/mousse-like texture, stronger and better flavor, and more interesting "embedded bits of stuff" inside, and more crave-worthy all around.
Side note: on the other hand, the beef satay at either Battambang or Phnom Penh House in Oakland is way better than Chez Sovan: more addictive flavor, more "encrusted char" on the outside.
Given the push of DOM, we finally ordered the Salmon Pepes at Lime Tree in SFO. The spicy sambal did not overwhelm the delicate fish, and it was done to perfection -- the fish did not come out dry.Perfect balance and timing, the hallmark of a great chef. The squirt of lime gave the whole dish a tangy highnote.
However, Lime Tree's Rendang and Martabak still remain our favorites. The issue here is opportunity cost. How many items can one eat in a sitting? As it is, we cart home about 5 - 6 boxes of Rendang and Martabak each time we go.
re: Dave MP
Dave, their description of Martabak as "crispy roti stuffed with.... this that and the other" does not do it justice. A small lump of dough is tossed until it is paper thin.... and then filled. The curry sauce is fantastic. We also ask for a bowl full, and extra hot sambal to take away.
(I am so jealous that you live near Lime Tree!)
lime tree also makes a vegetarian murtabak on request (they use cabbage for the filling) which is as good as their regular murtabak if not better :)
I think their curry sauce is a bit weak, seems a bit too diluted for our tastes, but overall ming is definitely a good chef and it shows at lime tree
It's been a few years but we went to Lime Tree three times and really enjoyed their starters (though we didn't try the satay). Noodles were indeed far less successful but I've been tempted to go back for the others and it just hasn't worked out on any recent trips. Glad to hear the martabak is still stellar!
Based on the above report, I pre-ordered the Amok Trei at Battambang. It was excellent. The spicing and coconut milk were balanced with the exception of too strong a flavor of lemongrass. Still, the spicing didn't overpower the flavor of the catfish itself. The fish was very moist.
Having had good luck with a delivery order of Angkor Borei's amhok a few months ago, I thought I'd take a chance getting takeout of a banana leaf dish from Straits in Burlingame. Their $20 “Ikan Pangang” is a totally different dish, a salmon filet, and lacked the fat to survive extra time in the banana leaf without drying out. My bad... I'd be curious to hear what it's like straight out of the kitchen.
Spicing was mild and it was served with a lemongrass chili sambal and a mango salsa containing chunks of unripe mango.
After much anticipation, in part due to klyeoh's recommendation (check the SE Asia board--this guy knows his stuff!), 4 of us finally made the great schlep across the bridge to Battambang, our sights firmly set on the amok trei. (For more, please see the thread on Battambang started by rwcfoodie: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/914107.)
And, yes, it was worth it! Cooked and served in a banana leaf bowl, it was even better than I had hoped, tender morsels of catfish suspended in a delicate coconut mousse richly flavored with red curry and kaffir lime leaf. Navy, who runs the restaurant, says that she makes all her food from scratch, down to the curry pastes, and I believe her.
Only 10 amok trei are made per day. Next time I go, one of those ten will be mine--and mine alone.
One week ago I stopped by an old favorite of mine, Bay Leaf Restaurant in Sunnyvale, to see if their Pepes Ikan was still as good as I remembered it. I had a preference for more aggressively spiced versions of fish in banana leaf than the Amok found in Cambodian restaurants and I knew Bay Leaf wouldn't let me down.
Pepes Ikan (at least the versions I have had) differs from Amok in several ways. Instead of being steamed like Amok, Pepes Ikan is grilled in banana leaf which imparts more banana leaf flavor to the dish. While Amok is a mousse with chunks of fish in it, Pepes Ikan is a fish fillet cooked in a paste of minced spices and has much more chile heat than typical Amok.
Bay Leaf's version includes lemongrass, bay leaf, chile, tomato, onions and other spices. Compared to the Amok I had at Chez Sovan two weeks earlier it was much more aggressively spiced and much hotter. The chile was enough to make my nose run and leave a pleasant burning sensation on my lips. The flavor is complex but not subtle. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The only off note was some hard little bits of various spices hidden in the paste such as tiny slivers of lemongrass too small too eat around but too hard to chew.
The first photo shows the presentation and the substantial char on the banana leaf which adds flavor to the dish. As you can see from the second and third photos a solid fillet is used rather than a mousse with chunks of fish.
I left the restaurant happy and having re-affirmed my preference for the more aggressive spicing of Pepes Ikan and Mok Pa vs the milder Amok. Two days later a truly outstanding rendition of Amok at Battambang blew away my prior conceptions. It had a wonderful complex flavor that left me equally appreciative of these two different renditions of a Southeast Asian classic.
For more on Battambang's Amok, see pilinut's comment and link above.
Looks awesome! I'm glad to hear your comment about being able to detect the banana leaf flavor. I was wondering if it was an aesthetic thing. Have you been able to detect banana leaf flavor in any of the other versions you've eaten? I didn't notice it in the two versions I ate. For Strait's version, which didn't have any visible fish paste, I would guess they'd get the same result with foil or parchment.
BTW, thanks for this DOTM suggestion--- this is a category I'll certainly keep an eye out for in future months!
This is not a category of dishes that I usually order, but recently had:
Mok Pa at Souk Savanh: The fish is basa and the marinade is green herbs dominated by dill. I did not notice the lemongrass as much. I enjoyed it, but I don't like dill that much and probably wouldn't order it again. About $8. Souk Savanh is one of my favorite restaurants these days; I've mentioned it in other threads. They almost always have beerlao dark.
Pepes Udang at Jayakarta: This was a big surprise to me. A friend was recommending it but I kept thinking the otak otak, which I have had in the past and which I find good but not great. The pepes udang (shrimp) I think has the same marinade as the ikan; turmeric and lemongrass and some alliums. Really delicious and savory in contrast to the herbiness of the Souk Savanh mok pa. Would order again no question, will try the fish next time.
Over the weekend I ate at Chabaa in the Sunset. I chose it because I wanted to try the hor mok talay. It's steamed in a clay pot instead of banana leaf, but it's basically the same idea as ahmok.
The hor mok talay had mixed seafood—only a little bit of fish (one of my dining companions missed it completely), calamari, fish balls, shrimp, and mussel. The calamari worked well in it, and it was nice and tender. The other stuff I could pass on. I would rather have just plain fish, which is what I always do at Angkor Borei.
But the flavor of the hor mok talay was really good. The tender custard was fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, and the portion was pretty generous. It was the best thing we ordered.
Also from the "Secret Thai Menu" we had the yum naem kao tod—crispy rice salad. I've had a similar (or same?) dish at Champa Garden, and remember liking it. This dish at Chabaa was sour and spicy. I liked it and my dining companions didn't. I love the texture of the crispy rice.
Pumpkin Pad Goong was OK - The pieces of kabocha squash were tasty, but it was just a stir-fry with egg and shrimp and other random veggies. It tasted like something I could make at home easily.
Rad-Nar, the only item we ordered from the non-secret menu, was mediocre. There was too much gravy, and the gravy didn't have much flavor. I'm a big fan of this dish when it's done well (for example, at Rod Dee in Brookline MA), but this didn't compare.
The menu here has a lot of interesting stuff, so I hope to return someday to try it out. I also wonder if the quality is the same at the Tenderloin location (or if it's maybe even better?)
OK, you guys & gals who voted for this dish, it's time to actually eat some and file a report!
To encourage more participation I've compiled the following list of sources from Internet, Chowhound and yelp searches. No guarantee of accuracy though so call ahead if you need to be sure. As you can see it's available pretty much everywhere. Please post any corrections or additions you know of.
* an asterisk means I've had the dish at the restaurant and I really liked it.
San Francisco & Peninsula—
3471 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
AHMOHK a mild curry fish mousse served in a banana leaf basket. $ 10.95
1100 Burlingame Ave, Burlingame. CA
Banana Leaf Salmon 20 (GF) (Dinner Menu)
“Ikan Pangang” Salmon in Banana Leaf, Sesame, Cilantro, Mango Salsa, Lemongrass Chili Sambal
910 Woodside Road
Redwood City, CA 94061
79 - Hor Mok - House Specialty
Steamed with cabbage, fresh basil leaves, egg, coconut milk and red curry.
Rock Cod or Shrimp $12.95, Seafood $14.95
Karakade Thai Cuisine
593 G Woodside Rd, Redwood City, CA
46. GRILLED SALMON 15.95
Filet of salmon, wrapped in banana leaves, grilled and served with a spicy garlic lemon sauce.
Shiok Singapore Kitchen
1137 Chestnut St, Menlo Park, CA 94025
Seabass Steamed in Banana Leaf $23.99
Seabass fillet, ginger, shiitake mushroom, tomato, and red pepper steamed in Shiok! sauce.
*Bay Leaf Restaurant
122 S Sunnyvale Ave, Sunnyvale, CA 94086
PEPES IKAN < BALINESE BANANA FISH> $ 11.95
2155 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050
79 - Hor Mok - House Specialty
Steamed with cabbage, fresh basil leaves, egg, coconut milk and red curry.
Rock Cod or Shrimp $12.95, Seafood $14.95
Jasmine Fine Thai Cuisine
1211 Franklin Mall, Santa Clara, CA 9505
Hor Mok Pla
1480 S De Anza Blvd, San Jose, CA
Ikan Bakar -
Grilled Striped Bass coated in spicy lemongrass sauce and wrap in a banana leaf.
*923 Oakland Rd, San Jose, CA 95112
2425 S Bascom Ave, Campbell, CA 95008
542 Barber Ln, Milpitas, CA 95035
Ar Mok Pla 9.50
Stream fresh fish wrapped with banana leaf in red curry sauce
That Luang Kitchen
1614 23rd St., San Pablo, CA
Dara Thai & Lao Cuisine
1549 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA
Hal Mok Pla – $15.95
Steamed red snapper cooked with herbs and spices served in a roasted young coconut shell.
2026 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704
PEPES IKAN - $14.95
Battambang Cambodian Restaurant
850 Broadway St., Oakland, CA
Amok is mentioned in some Chowhound posts and on yelp but none are recent and the only online menu I could find (third party) didn't list it.
Phnom Penh House
251 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607
HAMOK TREI : Sliced fish cooked w / coconut juice, spices of lemongrass, wrapped & steamed.
Souk Savanh Restaurant
1927 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606
3801 Allendale Ave, Oakland, CA
Mok Pa (on the separate Lao menu)
1319 Park St, Alameda, CA 94501
CAMBODIAN STYLED STEAMED FISH (Hamok Trei) 10.95
Sliced catfish wrapped and steamed with coconut juice and lemongrass spices
Green Champa Garden
42318 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA 94538
Catfish wrapped in banana leaf
A few more candidates in San Francisco -
Marnee Thai, 9th or Irving locations offer hor mok on the weekends only.
Thai Time, 8th ave
Chili Lime Garlic Thai Cafe, 518 Bryant St
Basil Canteen, 1489 Folsom St
pla pao - roasted wild caught fish in banana leaf served with chili-garlic lime sauce
Gajalee, 525 Valencia
Meen Pollichathu - Fish $13.00
Fish marinated in home made spices and slow cooked in plantain leaf.
Then a couple that I've tried and liked very much,
Chabaa, 2123 Irving St
Hor Mok Talay (Steamed seafood curry custard with spicy Thai herbal sauce
Grilled fresh salmon in banana leaf
Wat Buddhapradeep, 310 Poplar Ave San Bruno, CA 94066
I stopped by the San Jose branch of Chez Sovan on Monday to check out their Amok. Upon entering I was greeted enthusiastically by a tall man who was a source of great energy the whole meal, greeting each new customer, making jokes, giving detailed answers to my questions, and making sure everyone was satisfied.
The Amok came in a little bundle of banana leaf, held together with a pin of banana leaf spine as seen in the first photo. Opening it revealed a custardy concoction with a green coating on the outside from contact with the banana leaf (photo 2). There were chunks of fish throughout the mousse as seen in the last photo. (My apologies for the poor photo quality.)
Although I'm not the sharpest pencil in the box when it comes to deconstructing a dish to suss out its spices and other ingredients, the flavors of coconut and of citrus suggestive of kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass came through clearly. My host was happy to list the ingredients he recalled— coconut, curry, lemongrass, lime leaves, and paprika. He mentioned that preparation is a two day process and it's steamed for an hour to an hour and a half.
As I believe is typical of Cambodian food, the Chez Sovan Amok isn't as spicy or intensely flavored as some of its SE Asian counterparts, but there was plenty of flavor to satisfy me. Next time I'll try a more aggressively flavored version like Pepes Ikan or Mok Pa.
I don't live or work in the SF Bay Area anymore, so can't contribute to this. But can someone please go back to Battambang in Oakland and find out if their Amok Trei is still as good as I remembered? It seemed a lifetime away now, but I used to go back there for this dish almost once every 2-3 months. That dish was my ultimate fave, and attracted my attention when it was first mentioned in a 2001 Chowhound gathering:
Hi, klyeoh! How nice to see you on the other regional board I frequent. If you, the SE Asia food guru, say that the Amok Trei at Battambang was one of your favorites, we shall do what we can to check it out and report back.
Charlie, I found a link with the Battambang menu. Amok Trei is #94, and listed under "Specialties". That #95 and #96 are frogs' legs makes this an even more compelling candidate for a chowdown. How fast can you get over here, klyeoh? We have to report back by month end, but we can wait for you until then. :-)
LOL! Well, pilinut, I worked for the American President Lines which used to have its regional office in Oakland, so I used to spend 30% of my time each year in the SF Bay Area. Unfortunately (for me), APL has since moved to Scottsdale, AZ. I miss eating out in Oakland. Amok Trei hit the spot for me due to its similarity with Hor Mok Pla, its more assertive-tasting Thai cousin, and also the Penang otak-otak, one of my fave food items of all time!
A quick glance at how Penang otak-otak was prepared in this episode of No Reservations: Penang, where Anthony Bourdain has a taste of Penang otak-otak - see 21:59 to 22:35:
Thanks for the link, klyeoh! I watched it in fascination, waiting for the otak-otak to make its appearance. Five minutes into the film, I was so absorbed by the delights of Penang, which I have never visited, that I had to keep reminding myself why I had originally started watching. (On the strength of the recommendations I read on the Asia board, many of them yours, I am changing the "have never visited Penang" to "have not yet visited Penang.")
I was a bit surprised to see the otak-otak prepared by having the curry poured over the fish morsels in the banana leaf which is then steamed. The otak-otak I recall is more like a homogenous spiced fish paste rolled in a piece of banana leaf, which is fastened at the ends and then grilled over charcoal. But I'd happily eat either version. Any version, in fact.
Hi pilinut, that *other* type of otak-otak you mentioned is typical of those from Johore, Malaysia's southern-most state, linked to Singapore island via a half-mile long causeway. Consequently, the otak-otak we serve with Nasi Lemak in Singapore is similar to Johore's.
The otak-otak I tried at Straits @Westfield SF Centre a few years back was more similar to Thai "hor mok" than what we have in Singapore.
Thanks, pilinut— it's good to know that Battambang still serves Amok, and my memories of Kim Thanh's frogs' legs has me eager to try other SE Asian versions. Given the weighty responsibility of having nominated this dish, I feel a moral obligation to visit Battambang before month-end and report back! It's tough work but someone has to do it.
I'm not surprised there are quite distinct versions of otak-otak, especially given how many different countries it is found in. I've been checking out Mok Pa recipes and there is huge variation there as well. The Wikipedia entry for otak-otak doesn't mention the Philippines but gives some details on different versions in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore— http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otak-otak
I too was fascinated by the Bourdain video (my thanks also, klyeoh), and immediately began dreaming of booking a flight for Penang! Speaking of variations, Bourdain's affection for Laksa sent me to Wikipedia, where an extremely detailed entry lists at least 15 different types of Laksa by region, with a table detailing the differences between the various versions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laksa
We had the Pla Pao at Soi4 in Rockridge last night and really enjoyed it. The fish was wild-caught Walu, rich butterfish, meaty, in a grilled banana leaf with lemongrass, and served with a lime-chili sauce (very bright and flavorful). The steamed vegetables on the side were neither here nor there (asparagus, squash, green beans and cauliflower), but at least provided another vehicle for the great sauce.
re: The Dive
The take out Thai place in the Pacific east mall makes this phenomenal dish. It has the unfortunate name of "Mud fish". It is an open faced moist and flavorful fish cake with sauerkraut like cabbage underneath served on top of a rice leaf. The texture of the fish cake is just perfect. Fish cakes can sometimes be hard and or spongy but this one is moist not overly hard. It has the perfect amount of funky Thai flavors. And the tangy cabbage underneath is a good contrast to the flavor of the fish cake. The rice leaf is shaped like a little bowl to hold it together. Tastes like something you would eat in Thailand.
Ran Khanom Thai
3288 Pierce St., Richmond, the Pacific East Mall. No web site.