Kunrath Lam remembers the delightful punch of spicy-creamy-sweet in her mother’s cooking while growing up in Cambodia. The key was a blend of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal (a relative of ginger), kaffir lime leaf and roasted peanut sauce. Today that inimitable infusion features prominently on the menu of her St. Paul, Minn., restaurant Cheng Heng.
One dish — Lam’s childhood favorite — is called chha kroeng; chha means stir-fry and kroeng means put together. Local food critics call it a showstopper. One diner wrote on Yelp, “Don’t ask … just order this.”
Will Matsuda is a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Majoring in geography and educational studies, he plans to pursue photojournalism after graduation. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Morocco, working on a project about underage brides. Find more of his work at williammatsuda.com
Chha kroeng is popular across Cambodia, with each city serving up a distinctive recipe. Lam’s version comes from Kampong Cham, her mother’s hometown, where the emphasis is on lemongrass. Beyond its light citrus flavor, lemongrass has a soothing effect, says Lam, 42.
“For us, it’s like a medicine,” she says. “It helps with circulation, and after you eat it, your body feels good. When you feel sick, you drink lemongrass and then you feel better.”
Her family grows lemongrass all summer and buys more, for freezing, from the local farmers market — enough to supply her restaurant during the long Minnesota winter.
As intimately as Lam’s customers know her Cambodian cooking, however, few know how close they came to never tasting the secrets of her kitchen. The family’s nightmare began in April 1975, when soldiers forced them to leave their home in Phnom Penh. “They said to take whatever is necessary for three days and then you’ll be back,” Lam says.
Three days turned into four years. During that time, Pol Pot and his Communist-influenced Khmer Rouge soldiers killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population and much of its educated elite.
Lam and her family were sent to the jungle, where they endured long, hot days of physical labor with never enough food. Her father was put in charge of more than a hundred buffalo: Lam remembers him counting them again and again because he’d be killed if he lost even one. At age 5, she was sent to the rice fields, though she was much too young for the backbreaking work. Lam’s scarred legs remind her of the beatings she took for being slow at her job.
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Her parents were in constant danger because they had university degrees, and the Khmer Rouge targeted people with an education. “It’s lucky my mom and dad didn’t wear glasses, because anyone who wore glasses would be killed,” she says. “When they asked my father to read something, he held the book upside down.”
It isn’t clear how Lam’s family was spared when almost everyone around them was being killed. Lam thinks a Khmer Rouge official, a man her mother had befriended in Phnom Penh, protected them. “He looked ugly and everyone made fun of him,” Lam says, “but my mom always gave him money to buy food and then he became very powerful (under the Khmer Rouge). He found my mom and protected her.”
When the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out and occupied Cambodia in 1979, Lam’s family fled into the mountains. One night when Lam was 9, her family got separated as they crossed the border into Thailand. After they crawled under a series of three barbed wire fences, Thai soldiers chased after them. Lam hid in a well to avoid detection and found her family in the morning. Eventually, the Lam family ended up in a Thai refugee camp. Then, more luck: A St. Paul church offered to sponsor them. They arrived on a snowy November day in 1983. Lam was almost 11.
“I take nothing for granted,” says Lam, who opened Cheng Heng in 1997. Cheng is the middle name of Lam’s husband, Kevin Cheng Lam. Heng means lucky. Like so many immigrants, Lam wants to share her luck. Over the years she collected the restaurant’s tip money and has used it to build two schools in Cambodia — one just for girls.
Cheng Heng’s Cambodian Chha Kroeng
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 stalks of lemongrass, chopped
2 pieces of kaffir lime leaves
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon galangal, chopped
3 ounces sliced eye round beef
2 tablespoons soybean oil for wok
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped or shredded
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped or shredded
Couple pieces of broccoli, chopped or shredded
1/4 of a jumbo onion, chopped or shredded
Handful of chopped peanuts
4 to 5 pea pods, chopped or shredded
Roasted peanuts, to garnish
1. Using a food processor, combine the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, garlic, shallots and galangal until a fine texture is achieved. This is the kroeng.
2. Set two tablespoons of the kroeng aside. Rub the rest of this mixture into the beef to infuse the flavor into the meat. Set this aside for 10 minutes.
3. Place soybean oil in wok, add the reserved kroeng and let it cook at medium heat for 5 minutes, until a pleasant aroma is released. Add the beef, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and sugar. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Add the remaining ingredients and stir-fry for 3 minutes or until the vegetables are still slightly crunchy.
5. Season with more salt or sugar to taste. Garnish with roasted peanuts and serve with white rice.
Main photo: Chha kroeng is popular across Cambodia, with each city serving up a distinctive recipe. Credit: Will Matsuda
(Portions of this article first appeared in Mpls. St.Paul Magazine.)