The Slow Rise of Cambodian Food in America


The word “funky” often will come up when you chat about Cambodian foods.

It is often traced to prahok, fermented fish paste, an ingredient so extensively applied that there is a Cambodian phrase, ‘No prahok, no salt!” It is integrated in soups, these as samlor korko, a rustic vegetable and environmentally friendly fruit stew, as very well as dips, like teuk kreung, a fish-based sauce served with raw vegetables. Its style is considered an obtained a person for those people new to the delicacies. 

But 1st era Cambodian American cooks are not scared to use it. In a new crop of eateries, they are embracing the comprehensive breadth of Cambodian flavors, even though integrating their American upbringings.

“Cambodian meals is a balance of salt, sugar, and acid,” suggests Ethan Lim, Cambodian American founder and chef at Hermosa in Chicago, a sandwich shop-cum-Cambodian dinner sequence. He adds that it is this equilibrium that will make the delicacies distinct from Thai meals, for example, which has a better peak in acidity and warmth.

Porchetta stuffed with Eco-friendly Curry at Hermosa

Courtesy Hermosa

Inside of the eating place at Hermosa

Courtesy Hermosa

Nonetheless though Cambodian cuisine might be quieter, that subtlety really should not be perplexed for absence of taste. The country’s abundant background (which ties it to China, France, India, Thailand, and Vietnam) and an inextricable relationship with fish infuse the foodstuff with a deep, intricate taste. It attracts brightness from the generous use of aromatics and herbs, with an umami depth from fermented components like prahok.

The nuances of the cuisine, alongside the unique Cambodian American knowledge, can partly assistance clarify why Cambodian cuisine has lacked visibility in the States.

The Cambodian American diaspora commenced getting shape in 1975, when the very first wave of Cambodian refugees came to the States to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that left two million useless. At that time, several had been not imagining of how to combine Cambodian food stuff into the American mainstream. It was only meant to be relished in just the sanctity of their own houses. 

“I feel revisiting the delicacies requires revisiting sure traumas, and I really do not feel a large amount of individuals were ready for that yet,” states Lim.

A technology taken off, Lim feels he and his peers are now all set to share the delicacies with the relaxation of the nation. Some have began with common American mediums, this sort of as the sandwich, to introduce Cambodian flavors to their clientele. Hermosa’s greatest-selling item is their fried rooster variation, inspired by flavors Lim grew up having, with tangy papaya salad tucked into a brioche bun. He marinates the rooster in kroeung, Cambodia’s foundational lemongrass paste, and works by using an abundance of contemporary herbs, these kinds of as Thai basil, cilantro, cilantro, and mint, to be certain that it is a real representation of a Cambodian cultural dish—in sandwich variety.

In Los Angeles, at cafe and deli, Gamboge, founder and chef Hak Lonh also commenced with baguette sandwiches—the Cambodian num pang. Lonh makes use of kroeung as a foundational marinade, getting it in several instructions —sweet, bitter, spicy—throughout his menu. The cafe has a playful wine selection that highlights the normal “funkiness” of the food items, as Lonh puts it as nicely as fusion dishes, this kind of as the small rib bowl with Korean limited ribs marinated in kroeung. Lonh started out Gamboge as an homage to his parents, but he also desires it to depict what Cambodian meals in Los Angeles in 2021 can search like.

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