Finding the Heart of Cambodian Cuisine in the U.S.

Finding the Heart of Cambodian Cuisine in the U.S.
12 October, 2020

Photo by: Curtesy Of Ethan Lim 

For Socheath Sun, that part came more easily when she opened her take-out lunch business, Angkorian Pikestaff, in San Diego last year. “My mom is probably one of the best cooks I know, hands down,” she says. But even with Cambodian food “in her blood,” she never really saw Cambodian restaurants growing up in Virginia. She describes the thinking on them as, “That’s not going to make us any money, let’s just hop on the Thai train.” 

Lim says his parents chose to serve American-Chinese food because they understood, “there’s a business at the end of the day.” Lim’s family is actually Chinese by ethnicity, so it wasn’t a huge stretch. Sun calls it “all relative,” given that the Khmer Empire, predecessor to Cambodia as a country, once stretched across what is now Laos, Thailand, and parts of Vietnam. 

“It’s pungent, it’s in your face, and it’s comforting.”

She describes the cuisine itself as a mix of Chinese and Indian food, owing in part to the long-established trade between the Khmer and India. “It’s pungent, it’s in your face, and it’s comforting.” But the robust, bold dishes and heavy use of spices (but not so much spicy) set it apart completely from either, as well as neighbouring cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese. Cambodian flavours get underrated a lot, says Sun, “because these aren’t what people are accustomed to.” Searching for how to explain the cuisine, Le talks about the many rivers flowing through the country, highlighting the big role of salty dried fish and shrimp paste as she hints at the elephant in the room.

Few conversations about Cambodian food can avoid prahok, the salted and fermented fish paste that serves as a base for many Khmer dishes. The pungency when raw and alone earned it a reputation for repelling people. Theary Ngeth, who recently opened a food stall called Theary’s Kitchen just outside Seattle, never invites guests interested in Cambodian food into her house until she finishes cooking and cleans up, because the smell of prahok colours their impression. If they come only to eat, the flavour wins them over. 

Prahok Ktiss

Prahok ktiss

Stirred into dishes like Sun’s prahok ktiss – a ground pork curry dip with crudites – or Lim’s tek prahok, the sauce with his steak frites, it imbues a strong and complex funkiness. In explaining it to customers, he likens the dish to serving steak with blue cheese.

“To say prahok defines Cambodian food doesn’t do justice to the whole cuisine,” he says. “Everything is a matter of balance.” But the strength of the flavours in Khmer cuisine have purpose. Like so much else, it stems from the country’s history, says Le’s sister, Dawn Ung. “It’s made in that way because then you eat less of it.” In a poor country, the strong, salty flavours helped people eat less of the expensive meat and more rice. But in the U.S., that often meant Cambodian food hid behind signs for the sweetened, adapted cuisine of neighbouring Thailand.

“The public palate has expanded,” says Lim, especially in the last decade or so. He attributes much of the openness to big flavours to the rising popularity of Korean food. The funkiness and fermentation of kimchi drew people in, paving the way for him to weave prahok into his menu.

Le theorises the fact that more people know Cambodia even exists plays some part in the growing enthusiasm for its food. She chalks leaps in public understanding to pop culture moments like the temples of Angkor Wat in the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the subsequent advocacy by the movie’s star, Angelina Jolie, and the airing of various documentaries on the Khmer Rouge, from which her parents escaped to the U.S.

Since re-opening Phnom Penh Noodle House in March after a two-year hiatus, the sisters still serve the same seven noodle bowls, unchanged, that made up the restaurant’s entire menu for its first ten years. But each iteration of the business – after a snowstorm caved the roof of the original location in 1997, when their dad retired and they took over in 2013, and the recent reopening – adds more dishes around the staple bowls, growing to the current enormous menu, stretching from fish cake and chicken wing appetisers, to grilled short ribs marinated in garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. 

Battambang

In the bottom of a new construction building, the modern aesthetics of their space have a new addition, too: a big open area toward the front. “We had outlets put in, so that on weekends we could do more of those laborious dishes, like cooking a pot of soup for hours and hours,” explains Le. “Our restaurant is a good entry into Cambodian cuisine,” she says, but they hope to use the front space for pop-up dinners like what she calls real Cambodia. “Where you're eating with your hands and you’re wrapping the vegetables with the fish or the meat and you're dipping it.” 

“I think the allure is there, Cambodia is now on the map.”

While the sisters stick to their parents’ recipes, Lim explores how to honour traditional flavours while adapting technique and ingredients. As a one-man show, he can’t take the time to make his kroeung by beating the lemongrass and herbs into a paste with a mortar and pestle. “I can still replicate the flavour,” though, he says, while showing how it fits into the time constraints of modern life. He draws on his classic French training from culinary school, and what he likes to eat. Sun takes that a few steps further, cooking a mash-up of the Khmer food she grew up on and any other cuisine that happens to inspire her, resulting in combinations like a Cambodian beef stir-fry served with a trendy Korean tornado omelette.

The sisters, Lim, and Sun are still feeling their way into how to present their culture and cuisine, and what it means to cook Cambodian food in America today, but they do it in growing numbers: Angkorian Pikestaff opened last fall, Phnom Penh re-opened in March, and Hermosa added the Cambodian dinner menu in May. Theary’s Kitchen opened last month and Gamboge opened in Los Angeles in August, pairing Cambodian sandwiches with natural wine. In March, the owner of Seattle bar Oliver’s Twist, Karuna Long, realising he couldn’t survive the pandemic selling bar snacks, brought his family in to help him serve Khmer takeout.

“I think the allure is there, Cambodia is now on the map,” says Le, and that interest makes her generation feel like a Cambodian restaurant could be viable, bringing chefs and restaurateurs out of hiding behind other cuisines to cook Cambodian food with pride.