The slow rise of Cambodian food in America

The word “funky” often comes up when you talk about Cambodian cuisine.

It is often attributed to prahok, a fermented fish paste, an ingredient so widely used that there is a Cambodian phrase: “No prahok, no salt!” It is incorporated into soups, such as samlor korko, a rustic stew of green fruits and vegetables, as well as in dips, such as teuk kreung, a fish-based sauce served with raw vegetables. Its taste is taken for granted by those new to cooking.

But first-generation Cambodian American chefs aren’t afraid to use it. In a new generation of restaurants, they embrace the full breadth of Cambodian flavors, while integrating their American upbringing.

“Cambodian food is a balance of salt, sugar and acid,” says Ethan Lim, Cambodian-American founder and chef of Hermosa in Chicago, a series of sandwich-cum-Cambodian dinners. He adds that it is this balance that distinguishes cuisine from Thai cuisine, for example, which has a higher peak of acidity and heat.

Porchetta stuffed with green curry at Hermosa

Courtesy of Hermosa

Interior of the dining room at Hermosa

Courtesy of Hermosa

Still, while Cambodian cuisine may be quieter, this subtlety should not be confused with the lack of flavor. The country’s rich history (which links it to China, France, India, Thailand and Vietnam) and an inextricable relationship with fish give the food a deep and complex taste. It gets its luminosity from the generous use of aromatics and herbs, with a depth of umami from fermented ingredients like prahok.

The nuances of the cuisine, as well as the unique Cambodian-American experience, may partly help explain why Cambodian cuisine has lacked visibility in the United States.

The Cambodian-American diaspora began to take shape in 1975, when the first wave of Cambodian refugees arrived in the United States to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that claimed two million lives. At that time, many did not think about how to integrate Cambodian cuisine into the American mainstream. It was simply meant to be enjoyed in the sanctity of their own homes.

“I think revisiting the kitchen requires revisiting some trauma, and I don’t think a lot of people were ready for that yet,” says Lim.

A distant generation, Lim believes he and his peers are now ready to share the kitchen with the rest of the country. Some started with classic American mediums, like the sandwich, to introduce Cambodian flavors to their customers. Hermosa’s best-selling item is their version of fried chicken, inspired by the flavors Lim grew up with, with a tangy papaya salad nestled in a brioche bun. He marinates the chicken in kroeung, Cambodia’s fundamental lemongrass paste, and uses an abundance of fresh herbs, such as Thai basil, cilantro, cilantro and mint, to make sure it s’ is a true representation of a Cambodian cultural dish, in the form of a sandwich.

In Los Angeles, at coffee and deli, Gamboge, founder and chef Hak Lonh also started with baguette sandwiches, the Cambodian num pang. Lonh uses kroeung as a base marinade, taking it in various directions – sweet, sour, spicy – throughout his menu. The restaurant offers a playful wine selection that showcases the natural “funky character” of the food, as Lonh puts it; as well as fusion dishes, like the short rib bowl with Korean short ribs marinated in kroeung. Lonh started Gamboge as a tribute to his parents, but he also wants him to represent what Cambodian cuisine can look like in Los Angeles in 2021.

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