Preserving History Through Food: Phnom Penh Noodle House

Minh Nguyen March 20, 2013 0
Preserving History Through Food:  Phnom Penh Noodle House

Photo caption: Phnom Penh Noodle House owner Sam Ung and his daughter, Dawn Cropp. Photo credit: Minh Nguyen.

It is often the case that when people migrate and acculturate to America, the first thing they lose from their native culture is the language, the last the food. Sam Ung, owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House in the International District (ID), offers a cultural and historical education of Cambodia through its authentic dishes. Phnom Penh provides us with a different way to remember—not through words, but through flavor.

Ung has always taken deep pride in the quality and authenticity of his food, often going back to Cambodia to do what he calls “research eating.” “My food is better,” Ung laughs smugly.  Cambodian cuisine is hearty with flavors, mainly from fermented fish, and heady with herbs and spices such as galangal, star anise, and turmeric.

When you walk into Phnom Penh, however, the first thing you’ll notice is the wall of mounted photographs, all of which feature Ung and a public official, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, former Mayor Greg Nickels and Al Gore. For many, Ung’s story is not one of mere business success but evokes something much larger. Ung grew up in the midst of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal massacres in history, and immigrated to America to eventually become a highly successful restaurant owner with a big reputation. Contextualized in Cambodia’s tumultuous recent history, Phnom Penh Noodle House becomes much more than a restaurant; it’s the epitome of the “American dream” narrative. While the “American dream” is a heartbreaking myth for most immigrants, Phnom Penh is a kind of proof that it is possible, proof that once in a while, good things happen to good people, and that America holds possibilities — especially for immigrants of war — for a drastically new life.

Tofu phad thai at Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Minh Nguyen.

Tofu phad thai at Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Minh Nguyen.

To the right of the photographs is a display of artifacts from the Khmer Rouge. On the display hang the quotidian— the shoes the villagers wore on the fields—to the macabre—the blades that people used to cut villagers’ throats during the massacres. The confrontation of these artifacts in the restaurant remind his patrons that food is inseparable from history, and Sam’s direct relationship to these items teaches us that massacres like this are not past-tense, but present all around us, in the people we encounter every day.

There is a very small Cambodian population in Seattle, and Ung intends for Phnom Penh — named after the capital city of Cambodia — to be a strong representation of the country’s culture among few. While many know Sam’s restaurant as a paragon of authentic Cambodian cuisine, few know that Ung has an even longer history of cooking food than his 25 years of restaurant ownership shows. Before his success in America, Ung cooked at his parents’ restaurant in Cambodia, in the city of Battambang, where he grew up.

The cuisine is heavily influenced by Cambodia’s adjacent countries, which is why you’ll find on Phnom Penh’s menu familiar dishes such as phad thai, tai pak lov (Chinese herb duck), and Vietnamese-style rice and skewered pork with fish sauce. Ung says that a popular dish is Battambang’s favorite noodle, but another definite dish to try is the “sa-gnao jruok ktiss meurn,” a brothy soup that is reminiscent of Thai tom ka, flavored with coconut milk, lemongrass, generous chunks of galangal, chili tamarind paste, mushrooms, cilantro and fat, juicy shrimp.

With the incredible success of Phnom Penh and Ung’s recent book, “I Survived the Killing Fields,” many are speculating about his next steps. Rumors have been circulating, perhaps wishfully, about a second restaurant. However, Ung states that this won’t be the case, and that he plans to retire from the restaurant business and involve himself with humanitarian work in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge left Cambodia’s land and people in devastation, and Ung plans to go to Cambodia to train people in what he calls “permanent life skills” to generate a source of income and achieve financial independence.  Ung differentiates his humanitarian aspirations from those of current nonprofits who travel overseas to do the same work because he has known firsthand what they’ve gone through.
“They need to see me,” Ung says. “I could be inspirational to them. I could show them somebody that achieved something.”

When Ung retires, the restaurant will be taken over by his two daughters. His daughter, Dawn Cropp, says the restaurant business is much harder than she originally thought.

“My dad used to say, ‘You’re female, you can’t run this business on your own,’ and I used to think he was being sexist,”Dawn laughs. “But now I know how much manual labor is involved.  It will take the both of us [daughters] to fill his spot.”

Sam Ung and Dawn Cropp will return as vendors this year to support the ID Spring Roll because they believe in the importance of participating in the betterment of their own community.

“Plus, when you do good for the community,” Cropp says, “it’ll come right back around.”

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