Something Inside of Us Sleeps, The Sleeper Must Awaken

The Slow Rise of Cambodian Food in America

The word “funky” commonly will come up when you chat about Cambodian food.

It is frequently traced to prahok, fermented fish paste, an ingredient so greatly applied that there’s a Cambodian phrase, ‘No prahok, no salt!” It is integrated in soups, such as samlor korko, a rustic vegetable and eco-friendly fruit stew, as perfectly as dips, like teuk kreung, a fish-centered sauce served with uncooked veggies. Its style is regarded an acquired a single for these new to the delicacies. 

But first era Cambodian American chefs are not frightened to use it. In a new crop of eateries, they are embracing the total breadth of Cambodian flavors, while integrating their American upbringings.

“Cambodian food items is a harmony of salt, sugar, and acid,” says Ethan Lim, Cambodian-American founder and chef at Hermosa in Chicago, a sandwich shop-cum-Cambodian evening meal sequence. He provides that it’s this equilibrium that helps make the cuisine distinct from Thai food stuff, for example, which has a increased peak in acidity and warmth.

Porchetta stuffed with Inexperienced Curry at Hermosa

Courtesy Hermosa

Interior of the dining place at Hermosa

Courtesy Hermosa

Still even though Cambodian cuisine could be quieter, that subtlety should not be confused for deficiency of taste. The country’s loaded historical past (which ties it to China, France, India, Thailand, and Vietnam) and an inextricable romance with fish infuse the foodstuff with a deep, intricate flavor. It attracts brightness from the generous use of aromatics and herbs, with an umami depth from fermented components like prahok.

The nuances of the delicacies, alongside the special Cambodian-American practical experience, can partly assistance describe why Cambodian delicacies has lacked visibility in the States.

The Cambodian-American diaspora commenced taking shape in 1975, when the to start with wave of Cambodian refugees arrived to the States to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that remaining two million useless. At that time, several were being not thinking of how to integrate Cambodian foods into the American mainstream. It was merely meant to be liked within the sanctity of their own properties. 

“I think revisiting the delicacies demands revisiting sure traumas, and I never imagine a large amount of men and women had been prepared for that yet,” states Lim.

A era removed, Lim feels he and his friends are now prepared to share the cuisine with the rest of the country. Some have started out with traditional American mediums, this kind of as the sandwich, to introduce Cambodian flavors to their clientele. Hermosa’s greatest-advertising merchandise is their fried hen edition, impressed by flavors Lim grew up taking in, with tangy papaya salad tucked into a brioche bun. He marinates the rooster in kroeung, Cambodia’s foundational lemongrass paste, and employs an abundance of fresh new herbs, these kinds of as Thai basil, cilantro, cilantro, and mint, to assure that it’s a correct representation of a Cambodian cultural dish—in sandwich kind.

In Los Angeles, at cafe and deli, Gamboge, founder and chef Hak Lonh also started out with baguette sandwiches—the Cambodian num pang. Lonh employs kroeung as a foundational marinade, having it in numerous directions —sweet, bitter, spicy—throughout his menu. The restaurant has a playful wine choice that highlights the purely natural “funkiness” of the meals, as Lonh places it as well as fusion dishes, such as the small rib bowl with Korean quick ribs marinated in kroeung. Lonh started out Gamboge as an homage to his mothers and fathers, but he also would like it to symbolize what Cambodian foods in Los Angeles in 2021 can look like.