Noodle Soup Epiphanies
Chef Nite Yun brings Cambodian food to Emeryville
By Sarah Henry | Photos by Robin Jolin
It took Nite Yun a false start or two before she found her calling. Yun, a Cambodian immigrant raised in Stockton, went to San Francisco State to study nursing. San Francisco, which she’d been obsessed with ever since she was a little girl, felt right, but as she learned in her first rotation on a ward, nursing did not. The hospital scrubs, the fluorescent lights, the constant caring? Not for her.
What she craved most? Spending time in Cambodia, her country by birthright, which she’d never actually visited since she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She made her first trip in 2009, staying with her maternal grandmother in Battambang, a northwestern province known for its rice production and ancient temples. “I remember my grandmother just touching my face, continually touching my face,” says Yun. “She wouldn’t let me leave her. I had to sit by her the whole time.”
Yun’s grandmother lived in a village temple a short walk away from a daily market, where Yun rediscovered the delights of a street-stall noodle soup called kuy teav (or kuy tio). The hot, satisfying bowl made her sweat in the humid weather. It triggered fond memories of her mom’s cooking and became Yun’s daily breakfast ritual. “It was the walk down the path through the woods to the market and the smell, the people, the morning, the soup. It was like, this is what it’s about, right here.”
Food, family, and an unfamiliar land
Back in San Francisco, Yun dabbled in design and waitressed to pay the bills. But an itch kept drawing her to Cambodia. She went back and forth for about five years, staying almost a year on a trip in 2010. She met her paternal aunt and cousin in the country’s capital and learned a lot about her father’s side of the family. She was trying to make sense of her family, putting pieces of a puzzle together, she says now. “I had so many questions about the culture and the history, but also about who I am and why I am the way I am,” she says. Yun found out that her father had been married before and that she had three half-sisters, something she has never talked about with her parents, even though they know she knows. Cambodia, she says, is a country with layers
On a trip in 2012 to Phnom Penh, Yun had an epiphany over a bowl of noodle soup. She realized she needed to return to the Bay Area and start a Cambodian food business. She says it was only the second time in her life—the first was her move to San Francisco—where something felt so right she just had to do it.
That was the impetus for what eventually became her food pop-up Nyum Bai. The Cambodian expression means literally “to eat rice” and colloquially “let’s eat.” When Yun returned to the Bay Area, she spent close to a year learning about Cambodian cuisine and its ingredients. She worked on a recipe for her own kuy teav: a light pork broth with thin rice noodles, dried shrimp and squid for umami, plus minced pork, fried garlic, and toppings like hot sauce, fresh chilies, and bean sprouts.
Mom’s noodle soup with a modern twist
Each ingredient adds a different taste and texture to enrich the eater’s experience. “I tweaked my mom’s noodle soup, cooking from memory,” Yun says. Like many Bay Area cooks, she found herself drawn to local, seasonal produce and delighted in making everything from scratch. “I created a spreadsheet—I’m scientific—where I tracked ingredients, simmering time, temperature. I wanted to be confident that this was a bowl of soup
In 2015, Yun found her way to La Cocina, the San Francisco–based nonprofit incubator kitchen that helps low-income, mostly immigrant women get edible enterprises up and running. For two years she hosted pop-ups at locations in San Francisco and Oakland.
Then in 2017 she landed a longer-running pop-up spot at the Emeryville Public Market. Her original six-month residency at the tucked-away space has been extended, and Yun hopes to secure a permanent location at a more prominent stall when her current lease expires. The food mall, in the middle of extensive renovations, is now home to several food tenants with global roots, including the Peruvian Paradita Eatery, Shiba Ramen, and Korean-Japanese influenced KoJa Kitchen.
An overlooked cuisine
Yun’s path to food has been a circuitous one. So was her family’s journey to California. Her mom and dad fled Cambodia in the mid-1970s, escaping the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. They made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Yun and her older brother were born. In 1983, the family was relocated to Dallas, and a year later they moved to Stockton, home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the United States. There wasn’t much to do in the small apartment the family of five shared, she says, so Yun often wandered into the kitchen to help her mom cook. “I learned a lot. I didn’t even realize I was learning,” says the 34-year-old, who now calls West Oakland home.
It was Yun’s deep desire to connect with her extended family and learn about her parents’ carefree pre-war youth that kept her going back to Cambodia. Both her mother and father lost siblings and other family members during the war. They struggled to find food and barely had the strength to keep walking to the refugee camp, she recalls during an interview at her food stand, tears in her eyes. Her parents went through so much to survive, she says, and yet they never talk about the dark days.
From her five visits home over several years, Yun learned that her mom had not only been a beauty queen in Battambang, but also that she was known for her strength. Her dad fixed motorcycles and loved Khmer rock and roll. “In Stockton, life was always a struggle. My dad still doesn’t speak much English,” says Yun, who grew up surrounded by Cambodians, eating traditional Cambodian food, and speaking Cambodian. “Growing up was so weird for me. I identified as 100% Cambodian, and yet at the same time I’m growing up in America. And when I go to Cambodia, everybody there knows I’m American.”
Nyum Bai is a way to celebrate the food and culture of her family. When people think of Cambodia—if they think of it at all—it’s of the genocide or the temple of Angkor Wat, says Yun. The country’s cuisine is often overlooked. She’s on a mission to change that. Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese restaurants are plentiful in the Bay Area, but Cambodian cuisine, with its Chinese, Indian, and French influences, is comparatively scarce.
Even folks who consider themselves food savvy could be hard-pressed to describe this cuisine. Cambodian cooking features a few unique and fragrant base ingredients, among them a salty fermented fish paste called prahok, which promises an umami punch, and a pounded spice paste known as kroeung. Yun’s version of kroeung is made with lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, makrut lime leaves, and fresh turmeric. Peppercorns trump chilies as a way to impart heat, and seafood, courtesy of Cambodia’s many waterways, gets a starring role in many noodle and rice dishes.
Cambodian cookbooks: hard to f ind
Yun is a self-taught professional chef. “Cambodia was culturally gutted during the war, and an entire generation of cooks practically disappeared,” says Yun, who got her hands on as many Cambodian cookbooks as she could: “All eight of them,” she says, in a nod to the paucity of print volumes on the cuisine. She wants to resurrect these traditional recipes and introduce them to a new audience.
By her parents’ account, Cambodia was a happening place pre–Pol Pot. Yun wants to recall the good times—when art and music ruled, food was abundant, and her mom and dad were young and without the worries of war and the havoc caused by a totalitarian dictatorship.
The Nyum Bai menu is brief: It features a few kuy teav, the aromatic broth and meat dishes sprinkled with fresh herbs and crunchy toppings found throughout Cambodia at street food stands. Also in the mix: nyam sach moan, a Khmer chicken salad (see recipe); somlar kari saek moan, a chicken curry; and for dessert jeak k’tiss, a tapioca with palm sugar, coconut, and banana.
Beyond introductory dishes
Coming soon: Everything from what Yun calls traditional Cambodian dishes that move beyond the gateway menu she’s been offering to beloved dishes she grew up eating. Among the new offerings: twah ko, a fermented Cambodian sausage filled with kroeung, beef chunks, and rice. The sausage is grilled and served with pickled vegetables and white rice.
Also in the mix: samlor machoo kroeung, a stew-like sour soup made with kroeung and a fish paste base, beef broth, and sautéed beef that’s served with rice and eggplant.
And: prahok k’tiss, a thick pork belly dip mixed with fish paste, coconut milk, chili paste, and palm sugar. The dip is eaten with raw or lightly cooked crunchy vegetables, such as cabbage, cucumber, long beans, and eggplant.
Along with serving sought-after food, Yun sees her role as an educational one. “Cambodian food is just not that accessible—yet—because it’s not that available. People have so many questions: What’s in it? Is it spicy? Is it like Chinese food? How do you pronounce it?” she says. “Customers don’t always know where to begin. But once we explain the food and they try it, our work is done. The dishes—in their deliciousness—speak for themselves.” ♦
Nyum Bai, Emeryville Public Market, 5959 Shellmound St.
Open M–Sa, 11am–9pm, Su 11am–8pm. nyumbai.com
Contributing editor Sarah Henry’s food stories have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco, and online at NPR’s The Salt, Civil Eats, and Lucky Peach. Henry writes regularly for Edible San Francisco and Edible Marin & Wine Country. She is the author of Farmsteads of the California Coast and the co-author, with chef Preeti Mistry, of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul, due out this fall.
Robin Jolin is a film photographer based in Oakland who specializes in weddings, food, and portraiture. She balances work with swimming and quality time with her daughter. You can see her work at robinjolin.com.
Nite Yun’s Nyam Sach Moan
(Cambodian-style chicken salad)
This Khmer dish is served at festive occasions, such as weddings, New Year’s parties, and other celebrations. The fish sauce gives it a distinctly Cambodian flavor. Yun gives it a Northern California twist by including seasonal greens and other vegetables beyond the common cabbage.
1 chicken breast
2 cups chicken stock
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4–5 sprigs thyme
For sweet fish sauce dressing:
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 cup water
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ head cabbage, shredded
2 handfuls of loose organic greens (mizuna or arugula)
2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 bunch mint, leaves only
1 bunch Thai basil, leaves only
1 Persian cucumber, thinly sliced
1 bird’s eye chili, chopped
2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
To poach the chicken breast, place stock, garlic, and thyme into a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, add chicken, return to boil, and then reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until chicken is just cooked through. Turn off heat and leave chicken in liquid for 5 minutes. Remove meat from liquid and allow to cool on a plate. Then shred chicken into strips.
To make the sweet fish sauce dressing, place ingredients into a jar and stir until sugar dissolves.
Assemble salad ingredients in a large bowl, adding shredded poached chicken and sweet fish sauce dressing to taste. Toss thoroughly. Serve topped with crushed peanuts.