The Queen of Cambodian Cooking

By Lindsay Sterling

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 (pronounced So PEEP eem), pictured above, who is known as the queen of Cambodian cooks in Portland. “Everyone comes to her,” said Sopheap’s sister. Makara’s eleven extended 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 8-10 minutes on high heat, they were done. Sopheap’s teenage daughter who was born here and had never tried crickets either, squirmed empathetically as I looked a fried cricket in the eye. While the concept of eating bugs was new for me, the experience ended up being 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 banh xeo (pronounced Bahn chow) a large crepe made out of rice flour, coconut milk, egg and turmeric. The crepe is then folded over a filling of sauteed ground chicken, roasted coconut, red onion and bean sprouts.

Banh xeo is served with a buffet of fresh fixings: 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 banh xeo 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 banh xeo crepe and stuffing. 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, lime juice, sugar, and ground peanuts. Others in the family liked to eat banh xeo out of an oversized bowl with chopsticks. They cut the crepe and filling into large pieces with scissors, added handfuls of the fresh fixings and drizzled the sauce on top.

Thank you to Sopheap Im. Her way with food made my heart skip a beat.