Authentic food cultures, undiluted by Stop & Shop ingredients and suburban tastes, are rare these days, but, here’s one, perhaps the best foodie secret in New England:
The concession stand at the Roberto Clemente Volleyball Park in Lowell, where diminutive Oum Mean stands behind the counter with an enormous mortar and pestle, preparing sophisticated Khmer dishes every night for the Cambodian families who come to the park to play volleyball.
Lowell is the second largest Cambodian community in the country, runner-up only to Long Beach, Calif. Lowell’s Khmer food culture (Khmer people are the dominant ethnicity in Cambodia) is as authentic as it gets, from the Yummy Express where kids line up for bao bing, an Asian shaved ice layered with mung beans, syrup, and condensed milk, to the friendly Khmer restaurants filled with Cambodian families, to the markets lined with baskets of fresh peanuts, durian fruit, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and Cambodian herbs, not to mention blood cakes and duck heads.
Oum’s volleyball park cooking is so well-known in Lowell’s Lower Highlands that Andrew Zimmern, when visiting Lowell for his television show, slowed his limousine by the park for a look. Oum’s son mans the barbecue, a show of perfectly aligned teriyaki skewers, each served with a small pile of seasoned fresh vegetables to balance the sweet, roasted meat.
“You need to get Oum’s chicken wings,” someone said over my shoulder as I talked to Oum’s son; the group of men standing around all nodded.
Boned delicacies filled with ground chicken, kafir lime, turmeric, and probably 20 more spices, these stuffed chicken wings — canh ca don thit in Khmer or ailes de poulet farcies in French — are where fried chicken meets ornately seasoned croquettes, a beautiful example of when Khmer cooks recognized a great French culinary moment and kept it for their own.