Pop-Up Dinners That Share a Culture, Course by Course “Kreung”

When the chef Chinchakriya Un was just a baby, her family left Cambodia as refugees, fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Her mother, Kim Eng Mann, did not know if her culture would perish in the genocide alongside the country’s artists, intellectuals and civic leaders.

“I am cooking with her as a way to preserve our food history,” said Ms. Un, 32, at a dinner she hosted in July at the King Tai bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She hosts meals around the Northeast, including dinners in Rhode Island, where she grew up, and on a friend’s property in the Catskills.

The mother-daughter team squatted wide-kneed over a propane tank and scraped lobster marinating in coolers into enormous skillets. They cooked for a crowd of more than 100 people over two warm summer nights. Kreung, the name Ms. Un gave her pop-up and catering company, is a Khmer word that loosely translates as “spice.” Ms. Un and her mother, who is affectionately called Mama Kim at the dinners, are a culinary part of a larger movement to preserve Cambodian art and culture.

Ms. Un served lobster, stir-fried with roe, ginger, and spices, alongside rice and grilled corn, doused in coconut milk and fish sauce. Traditionally, the dish is made with crab and meant to be eaten by hand, but Ms. Un drew inspiration from her childhood in New England.

Many young Cambodian-Americans gathered for the pop-up with their skateboards, sitting on the curb to eat with their hands.

Like Ms. Un, some grew up in refugee families and, as adults, are only beginning to speak with their parents about the civil war.

“A lot of our culture disappeared as a lot of our population was killed, and we were just heads-down survival mode,” said Tina Kit, 28, a Cambodian-American who attended. “There just wasn’t that passing of knowledge.”

Language barriers and limits on the traditional ingredients they can find in the United States also make it hard to learn the recipes. Some have tried from YouTube videos; others trade voice messages with family members who stayed in Cambodia.

The meals served at Kreung are sometimes their only links to Cambodian food, as there are few Cambodian restaurants in New York City.

“Even for us, it’s hard to know our culture,” said Tommy Teav, 28. “This is spreading the culture because food is the root of everything.”

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