Sitha Yim enjoys a light moment during an event at East Brother Beer Co. in Richmond. Yim's Cambodian pop-up, Sitha's Khmerkitchen, is one of a handful of up-and-coming Bay Area food businesses shining a light on Khmer cuisine. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
’m seated inside Phở de Nguyen, a neon-bathed Vietnamese restaurant in downtown San Bruno, on a chilly winter night. I came to get warmed up — but not by the delicious phở the restaurant is known for.
Instead, I’m here for something less familiar and harder to find in the Bay Area: homestyle Cambodian food. I’d admittedly never eaten any before that point. Luckily, Mo Seaty, a first-generation Cambodian American from East Oakland and my homie, smoothly places our order.
There’s salaw machu kreung, a lemongrass-seasoned beef and tripe soup with eggplant. Amok trei, one of Cambodia’s national dishes, consists of salmon seasoned with kroeung — a spice and herb paste made with makrut lime leaves, galanga and turmeric — then steamed in banana leaves. Prahok ktiss is simmered minced pork mixed with chili peppers, coconut milk and fermented fish sauce. And that’s all before a platter of freshwater clams, directly sourced from the delta region of Stockton, is jigsawed onto our already crowded table.
Since December 2021, Yim has lovingly nurtured the small, family-run operation. A San Francisco resident, Yim first ventured into the local food game when she started drying beef jerky with Cambodian seasonings at her mother’s house in the Sunset District during the pandemic. At the time, she utilized Facebook groups to sell her beef jerky and a variety of other specialty Khmer foods — the cuisine of Cambodia’s Khmer ethnic majority, which makes up 90% of the population. She grew in popularity within the local Cambodian community, ultimately landing at Phở de Nguyen. And although her pop-up’s lease at Phở de Nguyen recently ended, Yim is now partnering with Oakland’s Korner Kitchen & Bar to bring her food to Fruitvale starting this spring. She also regularly pops up at venues like Mission Bowling Club and East Brother Beer Co.
Despite Yim’s underground rise, Cambodian cuisine isn’t exactly at the top of the Bay Area’s food pyramid. Even though so many other diverse immigrant foods have been embraced by our regional palate, traditional Khmer dishes like those offered by Yim can be difficult to find. In 2020, San Francisco’s Khmer mainstay, Angkor Borei, shut down after 30 years of service. And after last year’s closure of Nyum Bai — arguably the region’s most celebrated venue for Cambodian eats — it appeared that the already scarce supply of Khmer food in the Bay faced even further decline.
Yim, age 46, is primed to change that. For her, an appreciation for Cambodian cuisine isn’t about individual accolades — it’s about representing, and feeding, people just like her.
“My parents came to San Francisco and built a Cambodian community temple,” she says. “I was raised in the [Nagara Dhamma] temple after school, everyday. They inspired me. That’s where I learned to cook, clean and give back. I watched them make lots of food for others in need.”
After arriving in the Outer Sunset by way of Thailand and Chicago in 1984 at age seven, Yim quickly embraced the diverse Asian American community here. Having left her birth country after the Cambodian genocide — when the Khmer Rouge’s Communist regime killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population, including members of Yim’s own family — she was grateful for a new beginning. In 1999, she opened a doughnut shop in Southern California (as many other Cambodian Americans did), before moving to Houston to run a Cajun seafood restaurant for seven years.
Like many refugees, Yim hustled however she could, working around the clock and during holidays to make ends meet. She eventually returned to the Bay Area to raise her two children, moving in with her mother in San Francisco to save money. After her younger brother’s unexpected passing, she began to explore her reconnection to home and Khmer cuisine more deeply.
It wasn’t until I stopped by Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, where I tasted my first spoonful of kaw (a caramelized soup made with braised pork belly, pork knuckle, bamboo shoots and star anise) that I realized just how much Cambodia’s distinct flavors — and Khmer identity at large — have been largely hidden in plain sight.
Lack of Khmer Visibility
Despite California having the largest population of Cambodian immigrants in the U.S. — with Los Angeles, Stockton and greater San Francisco ranking among the most concentrated cities in the nation — the Cambodian food community here has remained relatively invisible from public view, especially when compared to other immigrant groups.
Yet when most Californians think of our state’s cornucopia of popular cuisines, Khmer foods aren’t usually among those listed. So what has kept the general population’s awareness about Cambodian food and Khmer identity on the periphery?
The Cambodian genocide almost completely wiped out Khmer culture during the 1970s, though the community has succeeded in coming together to preserve certain traditions such as Cambodian New Year and dance. Having experienced one of the most traumatic events in Southeast Asian history, many Cambodian refugees have intentionally created distance from their past — physically, mentally and culturally — which partially explains a lack of Khmer visibility.
“My father left and came here; he was basically ready to drop Cambodia as a country,” says Dorothy Chow, a Bay Area–raised Cambodian American who is vice president of sales at B&H Bakery Distributors. Her father founded the company in 1992 to provide supplies for mostly Cambodian-owned doughnut shops throughout Northern California.
Chow’s father’s generation — whose history she documented in a podcast called Death in Cambodia, Life in America — escaped their native land with deeply painful recollections. For decades, many parents passed down an open resentment and fear to their children, most of whom never returned to Cambodia or have been taught not to flaunt their Cambodian roots due to intergenerational trauma.
As a result, doughnut shops — rather than traditional Khmer cuisine — became a safe refuge and source of stability for Cambodians who were in pursuit of the American Dream.
“A lot of people were so scarred from surviving a genocide in their country that they wanted to be as American as possible,” Chow says. “A lot of them went into doughnut shops, a very American breakfast food that wasn’t a part of their culture.”
“My dad referenced the fact that he wasn’t proud to be Cambodian,” she adds. “Even for me, when I was growing up, my parents told me to just say I’m Chinese, not Cambodian. That says a lot as to why there maybe wasn’t as much pride in sharing the culture.”
Chow believes that’s why you’ll rarely see any Cambodian flags or restaurants that are as openly proud of their cultural background — whereas it’s common to see various other ethnicities represented through Mexican symbolism, an Ethiopian flag or Filipino slang at other diversely owned establishments. Even Yim, who is now extremely proud about being Khmer, rejected Cambodia when she was growing up. Instead, she would tell her high school classmates that she was Filipina.
But that seems to be changing. With time having passed, and the rise of online media to promote visibility, a shift is beginning to take place among today’s Khmer Americans in the Bay. And what better way to feel whole and nourished than by learning to embrace forgotten recipes?
The Future of Khmer Cuisine in the Bay
Sitha Yim doesn’t take days off. She’s a mother and entrepreneur, a proud San Franciscan who often volunteers as a translator for Cambodians in her area. She’s fueled by her love of cooking and is driven to share edible memories of her home with others.
“It’s a lot,” she admits. “Sometimes I’m tired, I won’t lie. But so many customers tell me they love the food, that they can’t find it anywhere else. I have a fully authentic menu right now. Anything you want in Cambodian food, I have in my kitchen. Even if it’s not on the menu. My oldest customers know. Like a secret menu.”
With the help of her partner Van Bui and her teenage daughter Ping, Yim is committed to providing a familial atmosphere at her pop-up, which feels more like eating at a friend’s house and being taken care of by the neighborhood matriarch than ordering at a traditional restaurant. She also continues to volunteer at her family’s Cambodian temple.
Though her pop-up spaces don’t show any Cambodian flags or Khmer decor due to being in temporary locations, she operates in a way that feels like someone who is constantly dreaming about their homeland and wants to share that intimacy with you. She hasn’t returned to Cambodia since leaving — due to safety concerns, lack of funding and the inflexibility of her schedule — but says she is making plans to return for the first time in the near future and wants to bring her children.
“The community is starting to feel more comfortable reclaiming our identity as Cambodian,” says Chow, the doughnut business executive. “Healing and reclaiming our identities is happening now. I see our food popping up more, like ‘Hey, I’m actually proud of my culture and the food we make. It’s important enough for me to put effort into this and share it.’ This generation, it’s kind of like putting our stake in the ground and saying, ‘No, actually this food is important to pass down. I’m not going to shy away from it or feel ashamed.’”
In this light, restaurants are more than just spaces for dining. They’re where lives can be rebuilt, where diasporas can gather safely, where histories and traditions can be passed down and where refuge and healing can begin.
“A part of it is wanting to feel firmly connected with your culture,” says my friend, Mo, who tells me his dad rejected Cambodia upon arriving to California. But that didn’t stop Mo from learning about his parent’s homeland and eventually taking a trip across the Pacific to experience it for himself. “I never felt American because I conceptualized America as white, so I wanted hella badly to find some sense of belonging. I picked Cambodians as my people.”
For me, as someone who had never experienced Khmer food, Yim’s pop-up is a crash course on homestyle Cambodian cuisine: pungent fish sauces, tangy herb pastes, salty fats, pickled vegetables and gingery surprises. It is a parade of both unknown and familiar aromas — cucumbers and bean sprouts followed by a bite of tripe, an ambitious spoonful of bitter melon soup and a soft boiled egg with a mouthful of white rice to finish it all off.
We split a plate of Yim’s Hmong-style stuffed chicken wings, a dish commonly sold by street vendors in Cambodia, Mo tells me. The massive wings are as layered as Yim’s journey as a refugee. And the taste? It’s as homey and comforting as you’ll find anywhere in the Bay Area. As Yim describes it, serving Khmer food is a culinary labor of love.
“I love Cambodian food, I’m not a big fan of American food,” she says. “My kids? They love Cambodian food, too. When their friends visit our house, I give them Cambodian food and they tell me they wish their parents knew how to make it.”
Mo agrees, pausing before his next bite.
“This is home right here.”
Sitha’s Khmerkitchen will be featured at Oakland’s newly reopened Korner Kitchen and Bar (1014 Fruitvale Ave.) on April 6–7 from 4–10 p.m., and will pop up regularly at the Fruitvale restaurant on weekends moving forward. Follow Sitha’s on Instagram for updated hours and for details about additional pop-up locations.
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