Carving an official Cambodia Town out of South Philadelphia
A culinary tour of Mifflin Square, the blocks of Sixth and Seventh Streets between Morris Street and Oregon Avenue.
On sunny weekend afternoons, in the shadow of an ornate, golden Buddhist temple, Mifflin Square in South Philadelphia is dotted with charcoal grills, chile-lacquered chicken wings, and thin-sliced fatty beef heavily seasoned with lemongrass sputtering over the coals. Women pound chilies, garlic, and dried shrimp to a paste to season the snappy unripe papaya for the lime-drenched salads they sell to passersby.
This is what some people call Cambodia Town, where these authentic street foods sell for $1, and where there's an effort afoot to make the title official. Though there are other places throughout the city that are rich in Cambodian culture - similar vendors sell snacks in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, and there's a new temple under construction in Southwest Philadelphia - the area around Mifflin Square is the heart of this community. Business owners, city officials, and Cambodian Americans think it's time to raise the profile of their culture - especially its bold, bright, and balanced cuisine.
"Philadelphia is a major concentration of Cambodian immigrants," says Brandon Duk, whose father, Danny, fled the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s. "We have the fourth-largest Cambodian population in the U.S.," he says. Even though Brandon Duk has lived his whole life in South Philly, has never traveled to Southeast Asia, and strongly prefers hamburgers to the foods cooked and sold along Mifflin Square, he is well-versed in the history of his family's homeland.
With his extended family, Danny Duk co-owns Khmer Kitchen. It's probably the best-known Cambodian food spot in Philadelphia, but Khmer Kitchen is surrounded by other Cambodian restaurants and groceries that few people even realize are there. That's part of the reason why Duk is so motivated to bring people together around the cause of creating an official Cambodia Town. He thinks that by banding together, the community can show the rest of the city - and our many food-focused tourists - how vibrant Cambodian culture is here.
Duk takes me on a mini-tour of the area he sees as the future Cambodia Town. Though hard boundaries haven't been established, he thinks it should encompass the blocks of Sixth and Seventh Streets that run between Morris Street and Oregon Avenue. We start with his favorite grocery, Chai Hong Market, at the corner of Seventh and Jackson Streets. The small space is piled high with ingredients unfamiliar to most Westerners, including the alien-looking winged beans that Duk explains are integral to Cambodian curries.
Before we leave the shop, Duk picks up several warm bundles wrapped with banana leaves and filled with fragrant sticky rice studded with banana, coconut, and candy-sweet jackfruit. "This is my favorite dessert," he says.
Another defining bite along these blocks is kuy teav, the soup that may be the final foodie frontier in Philadelphia in terms of Asian noodle bowls.
"It's the original pho," Duk says with considerable pride. "Cambodians invented this soup." He proceeds to season my bowl with all the correct additions - an enormous amount of black pepper, plenty of hot sauce, and a generous spoonful of "instant beef flavor paste." The soup is full of shrimp, meatballs, and tripe, and the fatty broth is as rich and soulful as its more famous Vietnamese cousin.
"People should come here to taste this," he says, and tells me that he and his family are in the early planning stages of opening a second Cambodian restaurant devoted exclusively to soups. Until then, he recommends slurping a bowl at nearby Heng Seng Restaurant or at I Heart Cambodia.
Anna Hitchens, a first-generation American whose parents also fled the genocide, thinks the creation of an official Cambodia Town would benefit the whole community. Her company, Koliyan, runs Cambodian cooking workshops and tasting events. Her parents also immigrated to the area around Oregon Avenue when they came to the United States from Cambodia. Like Duk, her work revolves around bringing the flavors of her heritage to a wider audience.
"The Italian Market is a destination people know about - you go there to taste cool stuff and explore Italian culture. If there was a designated corridor highlighting Cambodian businesses, people would visit," Hitchens says. The revenue from increased foot traffic could be key to helping the community set up a Business Improvement District, which could, in turn, deal with one of the neighborhood's most vexing and familiar problems: cleaning up trash.
City Councilman Mark Squilla agrees that an official Cambodia Town would be good for the people of his district. He's been active in meeting with Cambodian business owners and trying to connect them with city resources. The first hurdle is getting a formal group in place, such as a business association - typically, a precursor to the more formal (and costly) Business Improvement District.
"When you get organized, you automatically gain more influence in the political process," says Squilla, who would like to see Cambodian business owners connect with the city's commerce department to apply for grants to spruce up their building's facades. That, he says, would be a first project.
For Danny Duk, the effort goes beyond picking up trash and drawing in new visitors. "I want Cambodian people to stay here, to open their businesses here. I don't want this community to break up because people decide to move away," he says. To that end, he's been offering his restaurant as a meeting place where neighbors and city representatives can talk and plan. And he spreads the word to everyone he knows, which is to say, everyone in this corner of South Philadelphia. He shows me a letter from the Cambodian embassy granting its blessing for the creation of an official Cambodia Town in Philadelphia, its imprimatur infusing him with energy.
Food is an alluring path into learning about a different culture - it draws people out of their own backyards. "Restaurants keep a culture alive," Squilla says. And Duk's Khmer Kitchen is proof of that. "People drive from New York and Baltimore and sometimes wait two hours for a table." It's not hard to understand why they would travel for the restaurant's irresistible prah-hok kahteeh, savory caramelized pork made even richer with coconut that you scoop up with crunchy raw vegetables, and nyum sahdau, a seriously spicy salad the sports exotic bitter flower petals and peanuts.
People of Cambodian descent visit our "Cambodian Town" in part because most other cities don't have an enclave of Cambodian community and culture like we do here in Philadelphia. But of course they also come for the food. "They say it tastes like home," Duk says.
Cambodia Town Tasting Tour
Chai Hong Market
2200 S. Seventh St.
Heng Seng Restaurant
2217 S. Seventh St.; 215-755-5390
I Heart Cambodia
2207 S. Seventh St.; 215-755-2728
1700 S. Sixth St.; 215-755-2222
Khmer Sweet Basil
1801 S. Sixth St.; 215-465-2329
New Phnom Penh
2301 S. Seventh St.; 215-389-2122
Rising Star Grocery
2125 S Seventh St.
Nime Chow (Summer Rolls)
Makes 10 rolls
For the Mushroom and Sweet Potato Filling:
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 buna shimeji mushroom cluster, end trimmed
1 trumpet mushroom, sliced
6 shiitake mushrooms, sliced with stems removed
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 sweet potato, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
2 scallions, chopped
To assemble the Summer Rolls:
10 large rice paper wrappers
10 romaine lettuce leaves
1 package of vermicelli rice noodles (10 ounces), cooked according to package directions
1 recipe Mushroom and Sweet Potato Filling
1/2 cup mixed herbs, such as mint, basil, and cilantro
1 cucumber, cut into thin strips
1. Make the mushroom and sweet potato filling: Melt the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, ginger, and garlic and cook until the onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, tamari or soy sauce, and sugar. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are tender, about 4 minutes longer. Add the sweet potato and cook until tender, about 1 more minute. Stir in the scallions, season to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside.
2. Assemble the Nime Chow: Fill a wide, shallow dish with hot water. Place a rice paper wrapper into the water until it becomes soft and pliable, and then place it on a cutting board. Add a lettuce leaf to the middle of the rice paper, and then layer on roughly one-tenth of the vermicelli, mushroom and sweet potato filling, herbs, and cucumber.
3. Working carefully, fold the bottom of the rice paper to cover the vegetable filling. Keeping the filling together, tightly fold the left and right sides of the paper toward the center and roll to close. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
Per Roll: 168 calories; 5 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 2 grams fat; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 480 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.
Bok La Hong Green (Papaya Salad)
Makes 4 servingsEndTextStartText
For the Sauce:
1 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 Thai chilies
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup long beans, cut to 1-inch pieces
1 small green papaya, peeled and shredded thin
1/2 lime, halved and sliced paper thin
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
For the Topping:
3 sprigs of culantro (sawtooth herb), roughly chopped
3 tablespoons of chopped cashews
2 radishes, cut into matchsticksEndTextStartText
1. Make the sauce: Mix all sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
2. Combine the chilies and garlic in a mortar and pestle and pound to a paste. Add the long beans and pound until the beans begin to bruise, then add shredded papaya, lime pieces, shallots, and tomatoes and continue pounding until the papaya starts to bruise. Add the reserved sauce, and mix well. Divide the salad among four serving plates, and top with the culantro, cashews, and radishes.
Per Serving: 91 calories; 3 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; no cholesterol; 1,055 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.
Num Ansom (Coconut-infused sticky rice with plantain and jackfruit steamed in banana leaves)
Makes 12 servings
14 banana leaves, the extra to account for any breakage or too-small leaves
2 cups of sticky rice, rinsed and soaked in cold water overnight
13/4 cups of coconut milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
2 very ripe plantains, halved lengthwise, then cut into thirds
1/2 cup jackfruit chunks, cut into strips
1. Soak banana leaves in warm water until they are soft and pliable, about 5 minutes. Drain and trim into 10-inch squares, cutting away the strong fibrous ends. Dry each side of the banana leaf, using a cloth.
2. Drain soaked rice, set aside. Add the coconut milk, sugar, and sea salt to a saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and add the rice, stirring to incorporate. Cook uncovered on low heat until coconut mixture is completely absorbed by rice, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. To assemble, place 1 banana leaf square on a work surface, and place 2 strips of jackfruit in the middle. Place a heaping tablespoon of the rice mixture on top of the jackfruit, and spread it out into a rectangle roughly the same size as a plantain segment. Place a plantain segment on top, and add another heaping tablespoon of the rice mixture on top. Roll the banana leaf up like a burrito to seal, keeping the mixture tightly compacted.
4. Bring two inches of water to a boil in the bottom of a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Insert a steamer basket, and arrange the num ansom in a single layer. Cover, and steam for 40 minutes.
- Adapted from Anna Hitchens, Koliyan
Per Serving: 186 calories; 2 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol; 85 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText