We visited Chakriya Un of Kreung Cambodia at her Saturday mainstay at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. We talked to her about her culinary ventures and the impact and influence growing up as a Cambodian immigrant has had on her work and life. Her positive energy and sense of wanting to connect with the community is apparent as she shares stories with passersby at the busy marketplace. We are excited to have her as part of our July Goodie Foodie Night Market!
Can you introduce yourself please: tell us more about who you are, where you’re from, and what you do?
My name is Chakriya Un, I’m a random kid from the suburbs of Attleboro, MA. I’ve hopped and skipped around the East Coast but have decided to throw down roots in Brooklyn, NY as a dedicated cook, business owner, and occasional hot ass mess.
What led you to your culinary career? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do or did you stumble into it?
No way. Cooking was a total accident. I was a terrible cook growing up mostly because my mom always prepared our meals and attached her own hardships to food. As a child, I didn't have time for that and didn't want to confront deeper issues surrounding our family.
I can't talk about the beginnings of my culinary career without mentioning a few pieced together early memories.
As a low-income immigrant family, we relied on federal programs to keep us afloat. We would travel to the supermarket and it was the same selection over and over again. My tongue is forever stained with the taste of Welch’s Grape Juice and Kix Cereal.
There were weeks we could financially stretch and ball out on bone marrow and pig ears. Consistently, at the checkout line, my mom would flip over the styrofoam trays that held the meat so that it contents were not visible to anyone else. I understood this as a sense of cultural shame. We would always tread lightly because of this.
Fast forward to Chakriya in 2013 in NYC sitting at Blue Ribbon in the west village eating bone marrow and orange marmalade and getting charged $$$ for it. Emotions washed over me, (there were so many) I felt pleasure, guilt, and rage.
The styrofoam meat tray in all its glory was being publicly displayed right in front of me.
I wanted to liberate my mom, my culture and myself. I want to prepare bone marrow the way that I had enjoyed it for years! Why doesn't this exist for my culture? Where are my people? This was the moment I decided I wanted to cook. So I did.
You have a unique story being a Cambodian immigrant who fled during the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. How has this influenced you and your work?
Tremendously. My dad comes from a family of 7. During the Khmer Rouge, my dad was separated from them. They thought he was dead but instead, he was lost in the jungle for 7 years, while his very determined family had been sponsored to move to America. They were able to track him down and found him in the refugee camp where I was born.
I come from a family of survivors who have endured, coped, and understood loss and sadness. By the most organic ways possible I was taught that struggling and sadness cannot control your life so when it was not the time to work, we partied! My life and work have been a balance of both ever since I can remember.
Kreung is a project that seeks to address trauma created by the Khmer Rouge, create a space for dialogue with my family and community to share stories about their life experience before, during, and after the Khmer Rogue. It’s a way for us to share stories and record history that otherwise would have been lost. Its primary goal is to raise money to fund a tractor for my family in Cambodia (a tool that would drastically improve their community) but it’s become so much more. It seeks to celebrate our culture and liberate us from the effects of acculturation. I grew up with my dad and his sibling’s Cambodian Rock band, non-stop karaoke parties, and delicious meals prepared by the strong and beautiful women in my family. I want to reflect on all the beauty within our culture. All things I am most grateful for.
Explain Cambodian cuisine to someone who doesn’t know much about it? What are the go-to ingredients for most dishes?
Resourceful. Cambodians can do anything!
Prahok is fermented fish paste. My mom ferments her own fish paste under the heat of the South Carolina sun. It is used to create depth: it’s a seasoning and adds incredible umami and funk. Also necessities: Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, galangal, shallot, and garlic all come together to create Kreung. Kreung is one of the many pastes used in Cambodian stir-fries, curries, and soups.
How often do you hold pop-up events?
At least once a month. Our next pop- up will be announced on our Instagram account: @kreung_cambodia
What do you love most about what you do?
Food has really become my love language. It’s how I connect with my friends and feel like I can nurture them. I’m lucky that my work brings me into social environments that inspire me. Work and party at the same time!
What projects do you have on the horizon?
I’d like to take the time to expand my pop-ups into larger experiential gatherings, decolonizing the way we eat, and thinking about spaces that we exist in. I’m open to future collaborations and eager to connect with more of the Cambodian community.
Personally, I’m just floating and trying to find my space and identity as an artist within and separate to Kreung.
What are your favorite food spots in NYC?
Other pop-ups! If I'm not grabbing roti or jerk chicken on Nostrand Ave, or picking up a sandwich from Eleven36, I’m definitely supporting the work of my friends who have created their own pop-ups!
What can people expect to experience from Kreung at the Goodie Foodie Night Market at Space Ninety 8?
Traditional Cambodian flavors for this generation. Expect fresh experiences for anyone who is new to the Cambodian palate!
Here is a link to the TRACTOR FUND
Try Kreung Cambodia at Goodie Foodie Night Market on Thursday, July 27th from 6-9pm and at Smorgasburg every Saturday!
Photos: Andrew Supnet