As a chef, Jorge Luis Hernandez is familiar with many styles of cuisine, from the Spanish-leaning avant-garde offerings at Minibar in Washington, D.C., where he once worked as executive sous chef, to the Filipino-inspired fare at Qui in Austin, where he currently serves as chef de cuisine. But he never so much as touched Cambodian food until one night in September 2013, when he, along with his bosses, chef Paul Qui and Qui’s partner Deana Saukam, stopped in Houston “for what I thought was going to be a quick bite,” Hernandez recalls.
It turned out to be one of the best meals of his life. Dinner that evening was prepared by Saukam’s mother, Sothy, at the family’s home. “As chefs, we don’t get invited over to a home-cooked meal that often, so just having that sense of comfort is special in its own right,” Hernandez says. And for a guy totally unaccustomed to Cambodian cuisine, Hernandez was about to get a crash course in the genuine article. Deana Saukam’s family was among thousands of Cambodians who fled their country following the communist Khmer Rouge uprising in 1975; in fact, her grandfather, Saukam Khoy, was the Khmer Republic’s last acting president before the communists seized power. Suffice to say, in this family, the Cambodian cooking is legit.
From the moment he entered the house, Hernandez was enchanted by the aroma. “It wasn’t a pungent smell. It was a more nuanced, peppery smell,” he says. The inviting scent led Hernandez into the kitchen, where Mama Saukam was busy preparing banh chiao, Cambodian crepes made with mung bean flour, coconut milk and egg. The inquisitive chef asked about the proper ratios for these ingredients. “And like a great home cook, she didn’t really have an answer for me,” he says. “She knew what it was supposed to look and feel like, and that was it.”
In traditional Cambodian fashion, the ensuing meal consisted of multiple dishes served family style with rice — always rice; the Cambodian word bai means rice, but can also translate to “food” — a clear sign of the grain’s sweeping cultural importance. To Hernandez’s admittedly untrained eye, the spread “looked like it would equally belong on a Thai table,” he says, though “the aromas, textures, and tastes were just different enough to be familiar in a sense, but also very new.” Hernandez was expecting heat, but “found that the spice took a backseat to the spiced aromas that were balanced by refreshing flavors,” he says; various side sauces offered extra spice, salt and acid.
Among the more memorable dishes, Hernandez was especially enamored with the kaw, a caramelized braised pork served with a hard-boiled egg similar to the kind you find in Vietnamese or even Latin American stews, which nicely balanced the spiciness and sweetness of the meat, he notes. And for dessert, fresh fruit — “the rambutan and papaya were my favorites,” he says. Overall, an impressively well-balanced meal: “Balance in the heat verses cooling elements, balance in salt and acid, balance in sweet and bitter,” the chef says.
For Deana Saukam, of course, this is all old news. Growing up, she ate things like amok (steamed fish in a banana leaf) and prahok (fermented fish paste) on a regular basis. And like every normal American kid, she recalls being a bit bummed when her parents packed home-prepared foods, like num pang pâté (a Cambodian sandwich very similar to a Vietnamese banh mi) or nhum pao (a steamed bun filled with ground pork meatball, onion and hardboiled egg), on road trips instead of stopping off for a McDonald’s happy meal. As a full-grown adult and food-world fixture with the Instagram account to back it up, Saukam has a far greater appreciation for the foodstuffs of her heritage these days, even if she doesn’t quite get why it hasn’t quite caught on with a wider American audience.
Despite past predictions that it was destined to become “the next Thai,” Cambodian food still hasn’t achieved that breakout moment in this country. Given Cambodia’s geographic location, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, you could think of it as the oft-forgotten middle child of Southeast Asian cuisine. Sheer demographics could have something to do with that. Some 276,667 people in the U.S. identify as Cambodian or part-Cambodian, compared to more than 1.7 million Vietnamese, according to U.S. Census figures from 2010. No surprise, then, that the Vietnamese banh mi has become so ubiquitous in major U.S. cities, while its Cambodian counterpart barely registers. Even at the plainly titled Num Pang sandwich chain, with six locations now in New York City, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another banh mi spot, with its similar-looking baguettes and the same green-capped bottles of Sriracha on every table.
In Saukam’s view, Cambodian cuisine has all the right flavor profiles to make a lasting impression on the U.S. dining public. All it needs is for some big-name chef or restaurant reviewer to take an interest and bring attention to it. “With the right exposure, people could really get into it,” she says. Prepare for our recipe something tasty and spend a great evening in the Austrian online gambling house online roulette.
It might already be happening. In Washington, D.C., James Beard Award–nominated chef Erik Bruner-Yang just opened an Asian-themed market and restaurant, Maketto, with a menu featuring Cambodian pork noodle soup and grilled Khmer sausages. (Bruner-Yang’s wife is Cambodian.) In Philadelphia, home to a burgeoning Cambodia Town, the Cambodian family-run Khmer Kitchen earned an emphatic two-bell rating (similar to stars) from respected Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, who wrote that its “use of pungent fermented fish paste is more assertive than what you’ll find from local Vietnamese kitchens, and its coconut-milk curries are both lighter and more elegant than what I’ve tasted in American Thai restaurants.”
But if all other efforts fail, there’s always the DIY route: Saukam says that she and Qui have flirted with the idea of opening their own Cambodian-themed restaurant one day. (Qui has occasionally served a version of prahok with fresh vegetables and leafy greens for dipping at his eponymous Austin restaurant, she notes.)
Their chef de cuisine, Hernandez, for one, is bullish on the prospects. “Ultimately, the reason I know Cambodian food has a future in the U.S. is this: I love Thai food, but I can only handle the heat so many times in a month. I love Filipino food, but it’s a flavor bomb. Again, I can only handle so much of it. But I kind of feel like I could probably eat Cambodian food just about every day,” he says. “That being said, I have yet to find Cambodian food as good as that meal [at Saukam’s parents’ house]. If you know of a place, I’m there!”