Down the Aisle:Chakriya Un

Chef and Founder of Kreung Cambodia Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

A few months ago, a friend mentioned a young woman who had been cooking traditional Cambodian food in the form of a pop-up restaurant as a way to connect to her past and to support her family overseas. When I finally met this woman, the story I heard was incredibly inspiring. As I walked through Chinatown with Chakriya, I learned about how multi-layered and multi-generational her cooking process is, in that many of the core ingredients of her dishes are made in collaboration with her mother in South Carolina, and profits from her pop-ups are going towards improving conditions on her family’s farm in Cambodia.

Can you tell us why you chose this park to meet for the interview?

I had one of my first New York experiences here. I was totally blown away when I first arrived to New York, you know, feeling completely lonely. I remember walking around the perimeter of this park, and then I heard Khmer, the language of Cambodia being spoken. In that moment I felt grounded and connected in a way I was struggling to feel before.

How has the NYC food scene inspired your approach to cooking authentic Cambodian cuisine?

I’ve worked in the New York City food industry for a while, under French-style chefs and in very masculine cooking environments. I worked in the Bronx doing a lot of prepping- that was actually one of my favorite jobs even though I was getting paid $8 an hour. It was a little bistro, which didn’t matter at the time because I didn’t think I could cook. They taught me how to do really simple things like caramelize onions. Then I got offered a job working for a chef in a billionaire- type kitchen owned by 14 real estate executives. It was super surreal. I had access to ingredients and techniques I didn’t know existed. I spent two years there schooling myself and taking myself to places around New York City to eat.

Familiarizing your taste buds with the numerous NYC spots…

Yeah. Then I got recruited by this food startup called Munchery. It’s like Maple. It was run by this Cambodian chef who had started Cafe Cambodge. I told them that I am a Cambodian refugee and I want to highlight these certain Cambodian flavors. He had a similar story, and I got hired immediately as a sous chef even though I had never done that before. It was quite a transition that I didn’t know how to handle. It was very stressful. I got up at 4 AM and ended at 7PM. It was a lot. Then I quit that job and started working at L’Artusi in the West Village. That was run by a female chef, who is the most graceful woman. The staff really respected the way she operated the restaurant with such kindness. I don’t think I ever heard her raise her voice. I learned a lot about working on the line and organizing myself. Then I went to Cambodia for a month and spent time with my family. I met my grandfather for the first time.

Was this your first time going back to Cambodia as an adult?

Yes. I was there to find my birthplace, basically, because we left after the genocide. My parents both escaped. My mom was in her village…with landmines…while she was harvesting rice. She was separated from her family and met my dad, then they had me. I went back to Cambodia to learn my family’s techniques.


“I remember walking around the perimeter of this park, and then I heard Khmer, the language of Cambodia being spoken. In that moment I felt grounded and connected in a way I was struggling to feel before.”

 

All of the cultural and food techniques I had learned in New York… I unlearned them there. I came back (to the US) and spent more time with my mom and realized she’s always been doing things this way. She has this food exchange with all her friends in the US. My uncle and family in California harvest limes and send them to her so she can preserve them in the Cambodian tradition.

We moved to South Carolina because my mom had shrapnel embedded in her bones and she needed a warmer climate. With that came a lot of land. She has this sprawling garden and a closet where she ferments everything. Peels, turmeric… Most of the food that I use is directly from her. It feels so good that she is part of it.

While you’ve “unlearned” some of your New York cooking education, are there parts of it that you bring to your version of Cambodian cuisine that isn’t necessarily “authentic”?

I use local flavors and what we have available seasonally here. I do a lot of the sourcing from Baldor and Lancaster (Farm Fresh).

There’s a dish with sweet chili sauce that has so much sugar in it, and I’m like, “Mom we’ve gotta stop eating this. Diabetes is real, girl!” So I figured out how to make it with dates and tamarind instead. It looks different, but if you taste it, it’s very similar.

I love your journey of connecting to your roots through cooking and healing past wounds through making the dishes of your relatives. Can you tell me about those first experiences in making those dishes?

I had my first pop-up in February, two years ago…very illegally, I might add. I cooked traditional dishes across the board. I made this dish called babaw chem chrouk, which is pig’s blood with congee. I also made coconut chive buns and sausage. I felt better to know that there were Cambodians who had come to the pop-up because they had heard about it.


“There’s a dish with sweet chili sauce that has so much sugar in it, and I’m like, “Mom we’ve gotta stop eating this. Diabetes is real, girl!” So I figured out how to make it with dates and tamarind instead.”

 

My feelings are- this is a lot of work, but there’s a pinnacle moment. You’re elevating the culture in a really special way. I always felt really excluded by the Cambodian community growing up. I grew up very low income, with a lot of other immigrant families that were all just scraping by, trying to make it work for ourselves. Growing up, I think there was always a sense of shame. We were supposed to work really hard, but work in silence and not share our culture, because you’re an immigrant, and you don’t belong here… Even though that’s not true.

I feel really proud and happy when I’m cooking. If anything, it’s put more weight on representing this culture the best that I can. Sometimes I feel tired, but there’s no excuse to be sloppy or to not put it all out there.

I should also mention Kreung is a pop-up to support my mom’s village in Cambodia. I discussed it with my mom for a while. I went to the village and talked to her brother, asking him what the village needs. My grandfather also gave me land while I was there. And I was like, “What if we built this exchange program there?” We could see what the artisans of the village are really good at and make a market for that.

My grandfather did mention they could use a tractor. My uncle told me that my whole family in Cambodia is on the rice field for 14 hours a day. My goal is to put the donations from the people at my pop-ups aside for buying my family a tractor. The thing is- doing these pop ups are expensive. I ended up putting a lot of my own money into all of it. My family in Cambodia has no idea I’m doing this. Once we have reached our goal we will tell them.


“I think there was always a sense of shame. We were supposed to work really hard, but work in silence and not share our culture, because you’re an immigrant, and you don’t belong here… Even though that’s not true.”

 

So how long have you been doing the pop-up for?

Since March. But I am also traveling to Sonoma and San Francisco to do a few more pop-ups. Because of Smorgasburg, I’ve gotten a bunch of catering jobs, so I feel like I am going to get (to my goal of buying the tractor) sooner rather than later.

Has there been a particular dish that you have felt particularly proud of?

I don’t know if I have perfected any dish. There’s this paste called kreung. It’s a “mother paste”, as I like to call it. I took it from “mother sauce”, in Italian cuisine. It’s a blend of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, turmeric, galangal, sometimes shallot, and sometimes garlic. The components comprise a lot of Cambodian dishes. You have to remember there are so many dishes that have disappeared because of the genocide. Sometimes I go online to watch Cambodian moms cook. There are about 12 dishes that they make and I wonder if these are actually just the only ones that have made it… I think it’s important to keep Cambodian cuisine alive. I didn’t have an interest (in it) back in the day. It made me feel really dirty, growing up with turmeric staining everything in our kitchen. My mom is straight up from a jungle- there was no organization in our home growing up, but when I finally made this paste, I was like, “I get it, I get your process.” It wasn’t a recipe that I was working from, I was using smell. That’s something that my mom taught me. I made it for her, and she’ll adjust it every time and be like, “No, no, you need more of this.”

When you arrived in Cambodia, what ingredients did you see people using? What dishes did you really want to recreate?

Huge containers of fermented fish paste called prahok. It’s soooo smelly. It’s kind of like how my mom used to pack me durian in my lunches when I went to school. Until I was like, “None of this!” [laughs].  I was so ashamed. But anyway, yes, there were tubs of prahok in Cambodia. It’s how people prepared fish when there wasn’t any. But it also has umami and depth of flavor.

Your mom makes this paste on her own? What type of fish does she use?

Any type of white fish. My dad works in a factory, and some of the guys he supervises- he goes fishing with them on the weekends. She barters with them to use their fish. Her process is basically leaving the fish in the sun, out in the backyard. She’s made all these dehydration nets, 6 tiers, with screens around them. She’ll pack it into huge jars with toasted rice to add a nutty flavor and let it sit for months. When I go down to South Carolina she already has it prepared for me. When I visit, we go down to the farmer’s market where there are a lot of local vendors. We’ll grab our jalapenos, Thai baby eggplants, chilies, lemongrass, and fold it all into the fermented fish paste.


“I feel really proud and happy when I’m cooking. If anything, it’s put more weight on representing this culture the best that I can. Sometimes I feel tired, but there’s no excuse to be sloppy or to not put it all out there.”

 

Tell me about your grocery shopping routine here in NYC.

Well, currently, I am eliminating a lot from my diet. I’m trying to become more focused on what my body needs are, so I haven’t eaten gluten, sugar, or dairy.

Where do you shop?

Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, because I am very limited on time. It’s mostly roasted vegetables with garlic confit oil and some grains. I don’t make it very complicated for myself. I make a lot of shakes now, too. Blueberry, spinach, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, and almond milk- whatever’s around.

What are your favorite grocery stores?

I live in Crown Heights/ Bed-Stuy. I mostly just go to Whole Foods, but I love the bodegas around Nostrand Avenue. I am really obsessed with West Indian food. My friend who specializes in West Indian cuisine has been showing me scotch bonnet peppers, which are beautiful. I feel relatively new to this area so I don’t tie myself to one place.

So have there been any ingredients that you have recently discovered that you’ve been incorporating in your dishes?

I’ve been shifting from sugars to natural sweeteners, using beets or extra carrots to substitute. I was catering an event, so I had all these beet shavings. I really like using all parts, so I soak the shavings in water, letting it steep for a couple days, and then strain it and use that for color with tamarind clams. It is a really earthy-sea dish. There’s a lake in South Carolina that we visit that is clay-based. It’s totally illegal to do this, but my mom’s friend had discovered there were these freshwater clams in it. In the middle of the lake there’s an island. We floated a cooler, grill, and all our cooking equipment to the middle of the island and then dipped ourselves under water and then cook the clams there.


“There was no organization in our home growing up, but when I finally made this paste, I was like, “I get it, I get your process.” It wasn’t a recipe that I was working from, I was using smell. That’s something that my mom taught me.”

 

How often do you come to Bangkok Center Grocery?

Once a month or so. This market has a lot of crossovers with Cambodian flavors. Lemongrass. Turmeric. Galangal, ginger’s spicy older sister. Kaffir lime leaves. Thai baby eggplant- they taste like eggplant but they’re a bit tougher. I use them raw, as a vessel for a famous Cambodian pork dish, or boiled and made into the fermented fish paste. If I don’t have enough fermented fish brought up by my mom, I use this Thai brand. It’s very strong. This is creamed and the bones are super tiny, but they cook and break down.

If I have to use sugar, I use coconut or palm sugar. It adds a nutty sweetness. Also, shrimp paste is very similar to fish paste, and I use it in my papaya salads. I use a few tablespoons. It’s very strong- you can adjust to your preference. This is pickled mustard greens, which usually I make at home, but if I am in a rush, then this is great. When I want a taste of my mom’s food I’ll use oyster sauce with some kind of protein, stir fried. So easy! Also, coconut milk is used for every curry in Cambodian food.

Whoa, what is this “sea jelly”?

Sea jelly is pretty flavorless, but it’s a texture thing. I rinse it then chop it up. I put it in a coconut milk smoothie with jackfruit.

What Cambodian dish do you think would be best for FeedbackNY readers to try out?

I have been sharing kreung, the mother paste, with my friends. All my friends have been making marinades, stir-fry’s, and my friend even put it in a burger. It’s really good for you!

Any special rituals that you’ve adopted over the years?

My family gathers on the floor for meals. We have these family-style meals with our legs folded. I find myself eating on the ground all the time.

Were there any rituals your mom had around eating?

A lot of prayers. Not religious prayers, but a gratefulness she would express. Like, giving thanks to our ancestors, and not wasting food.

Take-aways:

  1. Kreung CambodiaPop Up Restaurant
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Chakriya’s Mother Paste

This is kreung, or as I like to call it the Mother Paste. It makes everything taste good and is good for you too! All my friends have been making marinades, stir-frys with it. My friend even put it in a burger with that paste. It was so good. You can store it in the fridge for a week or so after you make it.

Ingredients:

  • 4 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 thai chili (optional)
  • 10 kaffir lime leaves, vein removed
  • 1/4 inch of knob of galangal, thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 pc of turmeric
Combine in mortar and pestle and grind down to a fine past. Be patient, use a food processor as a last resort.
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