The queen of Cambodian cooking

Her friends call her 'So Peep'
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  September 23, 2009

 FOOD_cambodian_main

ALL HAIL Sopheap Im and her culinary skills.

Makara Meng, co-owner of Mittapheap World Market, welcomed me to her relative's suburban house in South Portland for an authentic Cambodian dinner. The head cook of the night was Makara's relative, Sopheap Im, who is known as the queen of Cambodian cooks in Portland. "Everyone comes to her," said Sopheap's sister. Makara's 11 extended but close family members that night taught me some amazing things.

First, people eat crickets! For Cambodians, fried crickets are a delicacy. Sopheap washed a pound of crickets, which were tide-mud brown and about the size of jumbo shrimp. Then she split the abdomen of each open with a knife, pushed a peanut inside, and deep-fried large handfuls at a time in vegetable oil, using a mesh cover to contain the explosive splattering. When they quieted and turned brown after eight to 10 minutes on high heat, they were done. Sopheap's teenage daughter, who was born in the US and had never tried crickets either, squirmed empathetically as I looked at one eye to eye. While the concept of eating bugs was new for me, the experience was familiar: think the flakiness of spanikopita, the flavor of crispy skinned roasted chicken, and the crunch of a potato chip all in one. The platter of fried crickets was the only buffet item that night that yielded no leftovers.

Between her jobs as a lobster- and sea-urchin cleaner at Portland Shellfish and cashier at Mittapheap World Market, Sopheap cooks a feast for her huge extended family every week. This week the meal, which took five-and-a-half hours and two people to cook, started with bahn chow, a large crêpe made out of rice flour, coconut milk, egg and turmeric. The crêpe is then folded over a filling of sautéed ground chicken, roasted coconut, red onion, and bean sprouts.

Bahn chow is served with a buffet of fresh fixins: piles of fresh mint, basil, cucumber slices, wedges of iceberg lettuce, and an herb called fishface. (The dark green leaves are the shape of the card suit spade, and they smell uncannily like a fish just pulled from the water.) Makara showed me how to eat the bahn chow traditionally using no silverware. She took a piece of iceberg in one hand, filled it with one cucumber slice, one mint leaf, two basil leaves, and a piece of the bahn chow crêpe and filling. She rolled the lettuce so that all the ingredients were wrapped inside. She dipped her roll into a sauce made of water, fish sauce, shallot, garlic, fresh red chili pepper, vinegar, a little sugar, and ground peanuts. Others in the family liked to eat bahn chow out of an oversized bowl with chopsticks. They cut the crêpe and filling into large pieces with scissors, added handfuls of the fresh fixins and drizzled the sauce on top.

Sopheap made three other phenomenal dishes that night -- more than I can share here. But you must know the queen of Cambodian cooking will be making appearances between her other jobs at the new Three Monkeys World Café, opening this October. If my evening with her is any indication, an open spirit will be rewarded. Her way with food made my heart skip a beat, then thump with joy.

Google "Inside Immigrant Kitchens" for everything you need to learn how to make Cambodian bahn chow and crickets on your own. E-maillindsay@lindsaysterling.com if you want to see it done live first.

MITTAPHEAP WORLD MARKET | 61 Washington Ave, Portland | 207.773.5523

THREE MONKEYS WORLD CAFÉ | Opening in October | 349 Cumberland Ave, Portland

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