GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 25, 2013

Food For Thought: A true taste of Cambodian culture

Food For Thought
Heather Atwood

---- — 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.

“Get the soup,” another man told me, “it’s gone by 6 (p.m.).”

“You sure you want the soup?” Oum’s daughter asked. “There are the feet.”

That soup, an alchemy of Cambodian curry served over homemade rice noodles, garnished with transparently thin squash strands and threads of fried shallot, proved more Oum finesse. Yes, there were chicken feet, and some gizzards, but they contributed vital layers of flavor to the other 50 happening in this bowl. Americans don’t cook like this. And, yes, on a second visit, the soup was out by 5:50.

Oum prepares each green papaya salad to order, pulling on her plastic gloves, and settling into the mortar and pestle. The entire process, adding and mixing maybe 20 ingredients, including her homemade shrimp paste, takes about 10 minutes.

Watching Oum work the mortar and pestle is seeing the art and craft of a cuisine hundreds of years old, hundreds of years of learning what flavors blend well with others to make a dish that cools, warms, strengthens, and nourishes. All this for the guys playing volley ball.

Oum is there cooking in the concession stand as long as the men play volleyball, which, they tell me, is every night, seven days a week, until the snows fly.

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Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to heatheraa@aol.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.