Neighborhood Kitchens

Neighborhood Kitchens Visits Simply Khmer

By Margarita Martinez

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Listen to my conversation about Simply Khmer and Lowell with Morning Edition host Bob Seay on WGBH 89.7 FM


I am always on the hunt for the authentic yet unique experience while traveling. Who knew that I would discover entirely new adventures while visiting Lowell, Massachusetts, a place I have been so many times before. I had thought of Lowell as home to historic mills and museums, downtown parks and restaurants, and the resting place of Jack Kerouac. This visit I was in for something completely different.

 

I first met up with Linda Sopheap Sou, an active Lowell community member and president of the Angkor Dance Troupe, an organization started by her father in the 1980s in order to preserve Cambodian performing arts, specifically Cambodian classical dance. Linda took me to the Angkor Dance Troupe's studios in one of the renovated mills downtown. There, young students of all ages were practicing choreography and the techniques of Cambodian classical dance in colorful silk outfits imported from Cambodia.

This took me back to my experience studying Thai classical dance, which is similar to Cambodian classical dance, with dance masters in Bangkok, Thailand several years ago. Thai classical dance is the hardest type of dance I have ever attempted. I tried to dust off my skills with the youngest group of dancers at the Angkor Dance Troupe, but if you don't practice, it is hard to get those fingers back far enough and your limbs positioned correctly. I was also reminded of a Cambodian classical dance performance I had seen in Bangkok from a visiting group of recently reunited dance masters. These dancers and singers barely survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and practically gave up on ever dancing again. As the troupe bowed at the end of their performance, I still remember rising to my feet with the rest of the audience and clapping with tears streaming down my face.

To now see how the Angkor Dance Troupe is passing down Cambodian classical dance to new generations of Cambodian-Americans and providing an extra-curricular and cultural pursuit for inner-city youth that can be shared with the greater Lowell community made me well-up with tears all over again.

After my visit at the studios Linda took me to the Pailin Volleyball Complex at Roberto Clemente Park, a community gathering place in the Cambodia Town neighborhood. The park is a bustling center with pick-up volleyball games and spectators, where you can get papaya salad and other Cambodian foods at the food stand. However I knew I shouldn't fill up on food at the park, because I was going to learn how to cook authentic Cambodian food with husband and wife Sam Neang and Denise Ban at Simply Khmer Restaurant.

Located on a nondescript street on the border of downtown Lowell and Cambodia Town, Simply Khmer is a welcoming Cambodian restaurant serving traditional Cambodian food. Sam and Denise started the restaurant with the intention of sharing and introducing Cambodian culinary traditions with all of Lowell and to the next generation of Cambodian-Americans. The menu at Simply Khmer is extensive. It was difficult for Sam and Denise to decide which dishes would demonstrate the complexity of flavors in Cambodian cuisine and would inspire viewers to try these recipes at home. They decided on fried egg rolls, fresh spring rolls, and the ever-popular green papaya salad. To finish, we moved on to Som-Law Ma-Ju Yuon. This sweet and sour soup felt like the culmination of many Cambodian ingredients and flavors. The sweetness of the sugar, pineapple, and tamarind powder together with the bold flavors of the Thai basil, ma'om, Asian coriander, fried garlic, fish sauce and lemongrass created an amazingly flavorful, crisp, and tangy soup. My mouth is watering just writing this!  

While Sam and I were cooking up some delicious egg rolls, we were interrupted by a special visit. Sam said that he had to take a quick break because Buddhist monks were coming to visit the restaurant. They always come at the same time each week to offer a blessing to Sam and Denise and to the business. Sam was very apologetic and promised us that it would only take a few minutes. However we were thrilled to be able to witness this sacred tradition in their restaurant. When I travelled in Southeast Asia, it was commonplace to see monks accepting alms of food from community members and to be offering blessings to businesses and community gatherings and events, but I hadn't seen it done in the United States. I was so touched to see Sam and Denise take pause in their busy day and participate in this custom.

From the historic mills being re-used as museums and business lofts to the Angkor Dance Troupe and Simply Khmer Restaurant I witnessed so many examples of cultural preservation. It is amazing to see the children and grandchildren of Cambodian refugees experiencing Cambodian culture and traditions. Denise says that she loves hearing from some of her younger Cambodian-American patrons that Simply Khmer is their first experience with authentic Cambodian cuisine. This example and so many others demonstrate how essential it is to have places such as Simply Khmer Restaurant, the Angkor Dance Troupe, and Pailin Park in order to preserve Cambodian culture in the United States and to serve as ambassadors of Cambodia's rich cultural and culinary traditions to the greater community in Massachusetts.

*****

Watch Neighborhood Kitchens online to learn more about Simply Khmer in Lowell.

VISIT NEIGHBORHOOD KITCHENS

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About Neighborhood Kitchens

Building on a 35-year history of producing Latino and multicultural programming, WGBH’s award winning La Plaza team has a new offering — Neighborhood Kitchens, a series about the exploration of culture through food. Every week the show offers a unique window into immigrant communities in New England.

Saturdays at 4pm on WGBH 2
Fridays at 7:30pm on WGBH 44


About the Author
Margarita Martinez Margarita Martinez
Margarita Martinez grew up in the Bronx, NY and Ossining, NY with a Puerto Rican father and a Franco-American mother. She now calls New England home. Margarita has always had an insatiable appetite for travel and food. She made her first empanada as a teenager visiting Argentina, satisfied her sweet tooth with poffertjes and stroopwafels while studying in Holland, engorged herself on Thai street food for a month in Bangkok, and continues to search for authentic international cuisines in the Northeast. Margarita loves to discover new ingredients, flavors, and cooking approaches that she can bring to her own home kitchen.

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In each episode, host Margarita Martínez visits a different ethnic restaurant and learns three delicious recipes from the chef. She also explores the restaurant’s neighborhood, discovering hidden gems along the way. Join her as she learns about new ingredients, new cultures, and new neighborhoods. ¡Hasta pronto!

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Margarita's Neighborhood Visits

»Boston: Bristol Lounge
»Boston's South End: Orinoco, Teranga and Oishii
»Boston's Back Bay: Casa Romero
»Boston's North End: Taranta
»Roxbury: Merengue
»Boston's Beacon Hill: Scampo
»All Around Boston: Mei Mei Street Kitchens
»Cambridge: Muqueca, Oleana, and Sandrine's
»
Somerville: Dosa Temple
»Lawrence: Cafe Azteca
»Lowell: Simply Khmer

»Fresh from the Fish Market
»Jamaica Plain: Tres Gatos
»Dorchester: Pho Le and Cafe Polonia
»Medford: Bistro 5
»Portland, ME: Emilitsa
»Newport, RI: Tallulah on Thames
»Pawtucket, RI: Rasoi

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