It’s only the second day of business at Nyum Bai, a new Cambodian noodle spot in Emeryville’s Public Market, but owner Nite Yun is sadly putting up a “Closed for the Day” sign after lunchtime. The reason behind the temporary closure is actually a positive one: such a throng of enthusiastic customers came to sample her traditional noodle soups that she ran out of food long before dinner. Pointing to the massive metal pots on her range top, Yun says, “These were supposed to make hundreds of servings of soup. I guess I’ll have to get another pot.”
Yun’s goal is to introduce Americans to Cambodian culture through some of its lesser-known dishes, especially noodle soups called kuy teav, which feature aromatic broths sprinkled with fresh herbs and crunchy toppings and are sold in street stalls all over Cambodia. At Nyum Bai, her new food stand in Emeryville’s Public Market, Nite Yun now prepares them daily.
The Public Market had reached out to La Cocina, the nonprofit that helps food entrepreneurs, primarily immigrant women and women of color to formalize and grow their businesses. Nite Yun learned of the opportunity to try out this temporary space from her involvement with La Cocina and the organization also helped her negotiate an affordable lease.
Yun had a desire to share her family’s heritage through her unique offerings of typical Cambodian street food dishes. Her parents had fled the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and resulting genocide (that killed an estimated two million people) and escaped to Thailand, where Yun was born in a refugee camp. A few years later, with a church group’s sponsorship, her family moved to Stockton, California.
Although they were now safe in America, like many refugees before them, her parents felt more comfortable primarily associating with the Cambodian community around Stockton. Her father never mastered English. Her mother worked as a seamstress at home.
“Even though I grew up in the U.S.,” Yun says, “I felt I was Cambodian. I spoke Cambodian, only ate the Cambodian foods my mother cooked. My family would sit on the floor and eat rice with dried fish. I thought everyone did.” The apartment was so small, that the family of five was basically always together. So when her mother cooked, Yun would join her in the kitchen and help chop lemongrass or garlic.
When she moved to San Francisco to study nursing at San Francisco State, she yearned for home-cooked Cambodian food, but couldn’t find any place that served it. “That’s when I started to really get into cooking. I’d call my mom up for a recipe, but of course, she didn’t really measure things. She would tell me to use ‘a pinkie-size’ of this or ‘a small bowl’ of that.”
As a child, Yun often felt frustrated with her parents’ lack of openness about their earlier lives in Cambodia. They didn’t want to talk about or dwell on the trauma they had survived. It left her with a lot of unanswered questions.
Six years ago, Yun returned alone to Cambodia to meet her aunts and cousins, find out about her parents’ past -- and eat. On her third trip to Cambodia, while she was sitting at a noodle stall, the idea came to her: to share her Cambodian culture through home-style food. She returned to the Bay Area, started cooking for friends and eventually entered La Cocina’s food incubator program in 2015.
Now she has the opportunity to serve some of her favorite dishes, including a trio of kuy teav noodles. The Phnom Penh features rice noodles, sliced and ground pork in a rich pork and shrimp broth, garnished with crispy garlic, cilantro, scallions and bean sprouts. Koh-ko pairs hearty beef broth with egg noodles, braised beef, bok choy, crispy garlic, red onion, and cilantro. For vegetarians, Ban Lai combines rice noodles and tofu in a mushroom leek broth, with seasonal vegetables, crispy garlic, cilantro, scallions and bean sprouts.
Yun also serves stir–fried rice noodles with tamarind sauce topped with an egg omelet and a coconut rice plate with fried scallions, pork and crispy egg -- a dish she says she would often buy for breakfast in Cambodia for only $1. In the coming weeks, she plans to add daily specials to introduce diners to new Cambodian tastes plus daily Cambodian desserts.
Nostalgic for an era she did not personally experience, Yun says, “I always knew I wanted to share Cambodian culture. But not only focus on the genocide and what we’ve gone through. I want to celebrate the good times, like the golden era (1960-65) when the art and music were awesome, there was abundance and my parents were young and carefree.”
Yun hasn’t graduated yet from La Cocina’s incubator program and is getting a lot of support from them. “Opening a restaurant has been overwhelming,” she says. “There is so much to learn. How to train my staff, how to streamline the production line and definitely how not to run out of food.”
She hasn’t actually told her parents, who still live in Stockton, that Nyum Bai is open yet. “I’ll tell them in a couple of weeks, “ she says, “when I get it all down, so that I’ll be able to cook lunch and speak to my mother at the same time.”
Cambodian people who heard about this venture were so excited that they dropped by the tucked away location in the Public Market before it even opened just to take photos in front of their sign. “Nyum Bai literally means ‘eat rice,’ “Yun explains, “but really that’s the way that you call guests to the table. It’s our way of saying, ‘Let’s eat!’”