Ethan Lim’s family discouraged him strongly when he told them his plan to start serving Cambodian food at Hermosa, his Chicago sandwich shop. Lim previously worked at Grant Achatz’s Aviary and Next, but opened the casual spot behind the American-style Chinese restaurant his parents opened in 1986, and where he and his eight siblings all worked growing up. They didn’t think the public had any interest in the Cambodian food they ate at home.
Ethan in his restaurant Hermosa
Last year, he added a sandwich featuring spicy fried chicken rubbed with kroeung, an aromatic herb and spice paste used widely in Cambodian cuisine, and pickles evoking Khmer-style papaya salad. Lim’s audience proved far more enthusiastic than expected, and faced with the challenges of the pandemic, he seized the opportunity to expand his offerings with a ‘Cambodian to-go’ menu launched in May and a more recent multi-course tasting menu, joining a growing group of his peers in returning to their roots.
Cambodian Fried Chicken Sandwich
Around the United States, a generation removed from the genocide and cultural destruction of the Khmer Rouge, and an ocean away from their parent’s homeland, Cambodian chefs and restaurateurs preserve and share their heritage through food. In doing so, they navigate the difficulties of rescuing lost knowledge and educating customers on both the bright spots and dark moments of Cambodia’s past.
The first major wave of Cambodian immigrants to the U.S. arrived in the late ‘70s, escaping the brutally violent regime that wiped out at least a quarter of the country’s eight million people, as well as every major cultural institution. The Khmer Rouge wiped out Cambodia’s vibrant music scene and renowned art community.
They burnt the cookbooks, explains restaurateur Diane Le, and the homes in which Cambodians cooked. “Our grandparents and parents are trying to recreate and remember, after four years of Khmer Rouge and then in the refugee camp, ‘How did I make this?’”
Diane,Dawn and Darlene
Photo by: Auriza Lynn Photography
Le and her sisters run Phnom Penh Noodle House, which was one of the only Cambodian restaurants in the U.S. outside Cambodian enclaves like Stockton and Long Beach, California, back when their parents opened it in 1987. “Our generation’s really trying to dig that information from Grandma.”