Think of Cambodian food as the old-school punk rocker that has been doing things their own way since before it was even called punk — it’s brash, bold, the antithesis of Top 40 pop.
You’ve probably had pad Thai noodles or a bowl of Vietnamese pho. But have you ever tasted a dish that made fish and mint and chile and lemongrass start a mosh pit together on your tongue?
The unique ingredients and intricate flavors of Cambodian cuisine are hard to fully describe and even harder to ignore. Thankfully, the otherworldly dishes of Southeast Asia’s oldest kingdom are finally starting to get their due respect, with an increasing number of chefs and restaurants set on making Cambodian cuisine the next big thing (if it isn’t already!).
While Vietnamese and Thai food are far more widely known, it was actually the rich waterways and fertile soil of the Khmer Empire (which stretched across the majority of the region until the Middle Ages) that first built the foundation for neighboring countries’ cuisines.
“I feel like acceptance of Cambodian cuisine is steps behind Thai food and Vietnamese food even though it’s so similar in many ways,” says Cambodian-born chef Maurice Yim, who infuses French techniques with Khmer traditions at pop-up dinners in Long Beach, California.
“Even at Khmer restaurants, menus have lots of Chinese and Thai dishes so it’s all muddled. I want to make things that proudly say, ‘This is Khmer food.’”
Cambodian cuisine is in the midst of a Renaissance, not only stateside in enclaves where refugees settled after escaping the Khmer Rouge, but also in the motherland itself, where Cambodians are looking back to the golden age of their culture for inspiration on how to move forward.
In Long Beach, California – home to the largest population of Cambodians in the USA – its designated Cambodia Town is home to a dozen or so restaurants and nightclubs serving traditional home-style and party food. Back in Cambodia, a law student even set out to research, recreate and revive lost Khmer recipes with his restaurant Kraya Angkor.
But it’s a new generation of young chefs (many born in refugee camps along the Thai border and brought to the USA as children) who are re-defining the way Cambodian cuisine is made, presented and understood.
Nite Yun, for example, arrived with her parents in Stockton, California, in the 1980s, took advantage of a culinary incubator in the Bay Area, and now owns one of the most exciting new restaurants in Oakland, California: Nyum Bai, where she riffs on her favorite dishes, rediscovered during trips back to Cambodia.
Allen Prom, another Khmer food maker, grew up in a small town in South Dakota where his parents operated a Chinese restaurant. Today, he runs Yeak, Inc., a line of Cambodian-American hot sauces already on shelves at Cambodian markets and starting to push more into mainstream dining establishments.
“When people ask what’s a Cambodian hot sauce, I tell them I grew up watching my parents eat fresh chiles on the side of their plate with fish sauce, so that right there is Cambodian hot sauce,” jokes Prom.
“For the most part, my sauces come out of my Chinese restaurant upbringing. I started with the kmao – our chili oil, which I always grew up eating with rice. What makes it Cambodian is palm sugar and fish sauce.” Yum.
Sarah Bennett regularly writes about Cambodian food for LA Eater.
All photos by Deana Saukam.