The word “funky” frequently comes up when you talk about Cambodian food.
It is often traced to prahok, fermented fish paste, an ingredient so widely used that there’s a Cambodian phrase, ‘No prahok, no salt!” It is incorporated in soups, such as samlor korko, a rustic vegetable and green fruit stew, as well as dips, like teuk kreung, a fish-based sauce served with raw vegetables. Its taste is considered an acquired one for those new to the cuisine.
But first generation Cambodian American chefs are not afraid to use it. In a new crop of eateries, they are embracing the full breadth of Cambodian flavors, while integrating their American upbringings.
“Cambodian food is a balance of salt, sugar, and acid,” says Ethan Lim, Cambodian-American founder and chef at Hermosa in Chicago, a sandwich shop-cum-Cambodian dinner series. He adds that it’s this balance that makes the cuisine distinct from Thai food, for example, which has a higher peak in acidity and heat.
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