Chinchakriya Un holds handfuls of herbs over an inflatable kiddie pool, the water from a garden hose washing dirt and sand off the lemon balm, fish mint, cilantro, sawtooth coriander, and water celery she’s picked from her mother’s vast garden in Spartanburg, South Carolina. All of these herbs will make their way into a feast of fish that’s wrapped in banana leaves, grilled over hot coals, and eaten with the family Un has driven more than 10 hours to cook with.
Un, who lives in Brooklyn, hosts a pop-up called Kreung, named for the rich pastes of herbs and spices that flavor so many Cambodian dishes. Before the pandemic, Kreung popped up in warehouses, in lush fields across the Hudson Valley — really, wherever there was space for Un to set up a charcoal grill and assemble her tablescapes of brightly flavored Cambodian food, flower bouquets, and piles of tropical fruits. During the pandemic, the pop-up operated out of Un’s Bushwick apartment, with masked customers picking up to-go containers of preserved lime and chicken noodle soup, fish curry cooked overnight until the bones turned buttery and soft, and panna cotta made with coconut and mung beans.
New York has few outlets for Cambodian cooking, but it’s more than Un’s food that attracts a beloved following in this city. It’s her trips away from New York that many of her followers look forward to most, as when she travels to South Carolina to visit her parents — particularly her mother, Kim. When Un was a baby, Kim relocated the family to America from a refugee camp in Thailand. It’s been 30 years since she was last in Cambodia, but Kim’s knowledge of Cambodian cooking is vast. On her trips home, Un shares constant Instagram updates of her mom’s ever-expanding garden and posts step-by-step videos documenting Kim as she makes especially complicated dishes. In the years since Un’s parents moved here, their garden has turned into a small farm, complete with a greenhouse built by her father, Vanchin, to protect the banana trees on their property so they blossom and bear fruit. There’s an outdoor kitchen, too, and on this land Kim has nearly all the herbs, chiles, and fruits she cooks with.
On trips home, Un becomes a student of the traditional flavors and techniques of her mother’s cooking. Un spends the night shift tending to slow-cooked fish stew set over a butane burner on the porch (occasionally falling asleep, letting the stew burn), gathering sweet potatoes and persimmons, and pounding spice pastes in an enormous mortar. “Mama Kim has expressed that she’s really excited to remember these other processes that she hasn’t revisited since she was in Cambodia, like making her own fish sauce,” Un tells me when I ask if she still has more to learn from her mother. “That’s something that I’m still looking forward to.”
Un records each step as Kim cooks, making sure she understands what goes into making a dish before returning to Brooklyn, where she often takes her inspiration in a new direction. Recipes are often reshaped by the difficulty of finding fresh herbs like ngo om, rau ram, sdao, curry leaves, and shiso in New York. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I have these techniques, how do I disrupt things?’” she says of bringing Kim’s reimagined dishes to her pop-up menus. “I’m dipping my foot in and I don’t necessarily feel completely comfortable, or confident in myself to go all the way with it. But there have been moments where I reinterpret a hot sauce and put it on ribs, which is not traditional. I’m becoming more excited [to branch out].”
There are some dishes, however, that Un doesn’t try to reproduce in New York: She doesn’t have outdoor space with a grill or a garden, so in her mother’s yard, the two make the most of the space and the riches it offers. “When we get to spend time together, it’s often a process of us figuring out what we first want to eat,” says Un. “And it’s usually fish.”
Depending on what’s in peak season, the flavors of trey angh, or grilled fish, may change, but the preparation remains more or less unchanged from one visit to the next: Fish is stuffed to bursting with lemongrass, ginger, and garlic, wrapped carefully in banana leaves, and grilled. “The only things that change are the herbs that are available at that time. It’s very simple.” Kim wraps the whole fish in waxy banana leaves plucked from one of the trees in the greenhouse. Un’s father is in charge of preparing the grill. “He is the fire man. He is literally the only one who ever starts the fire, is that true, Ma?” asks Un. Kim nods in agreement. “Pa always starts the fire, every single time.”
These roles are comfortable and familiar, but as the cooking gets underway, the order dissolves, making way for a happy sort of chaos. “At our house, everyone is doing everything: I’m running between flipping something, getting Mom the herbs she needs, or hosing the vegetables.” Wrapping fish in banana leaves is a particularly good technique for the mayhem of this sort of all-hands-on-deck cooking, because the leaves insulate the fish from burning over the flames if it’s forgotten for a few minutes. As Un goes back and forth from greenhouse to garden to grill, the fish gently steams, absorbing the grassy flavor of the banana leaves and the herbs tucked within. “The fish never comes out overcooked,” Un says. “It’s always perfect.”
Once the fish is done, a table is set in the garden and Un lays out the washed herbs in a big plastic basket. There’s a bowl of pickled greens too, plenty of freshly steamed rice, tamarind fish sauce, and chile pickles. With the fish at the center of the table, arms cross over and under and bowls are shuffled as bits of fish are folded into lettuce wraps piled high with herbs, sauce, and clumps of rice.
These freewheeling feasts in the warmth of her parents’ garden are reason enough for Un to spend most of her summers in South Carolina, and when Un and her husband visit, they eat grilled fish as often as possible. “Every bite is so different, which is what we love about it. When we’re home in South Carolina, we eat it two or three times a week,” says Un. “Mom and Dad really love this dish, too. It’s something they ate as kids, and of course the herbs and the greens are probably different, because they’re in a different place. But it’s a tradition for them, as much as it is for us now.”
Trey M’Pill — Tamarind Fish Recipe
For the fish and tamarind sauce:
1 whole white fish (2 to 3 pounds) of your choice, such as milkfish, sea bass, or trout
1 cup canola oil, or any neutral oil
1 head garlic, peeled and chopped
5 ounces tamarind (⅓ of a typical 14- to 16-ounce block)
2 cups water
5 ounces palm sugar or brown sugar
2½ tablespoons fish sauce
2 Thai chilis, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and pounded
4 or 5 lime leaves
1 lemon, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, thinly sliced
Banana, turmeric, or fuki leaves for wrapping the fish
Salt and black pepper to taste
Various herbs, such as mint, basil, rau ram, lemon balm, or dill
Special equipment (optional):
Step 1: Clean and scale the fish, or have your local fish market do it for you. If your fish has roe, save it for curing. Place the fish on a large, rimmed baking sheet and set aside.
Step 2: Add the canola oil to a small pot and heat over low to medium heat. Add the chopped garlic. Cook until the garlic is golden brown, about 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Strain the fried garlic through a sieve, making sure to reserve the garlic oil in a small container. Spread the fried garlic on a paper towel to blot out the excess oil, and set aside.
Step 3: Add the tamarind and water to a saucepan set over medium heat. Heat through, stirring with a spoon to break up any lumps. When none remain and the tamarind is fully combined with the water, strain it through a sieve to remove any seeds and remaining whole strands of pulp. Return the strained tamarind mixture to the saucepan and add the palm sugar. (If you’re using compressed palm sugar, this is roughly 4 disks.) Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the fish sauce and chiles, and then salt and pepper to taste. Add 3 tablespoons of the fried garlic and stir to mix well. The sauce should taste like an interesting mix of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors — it should make your mouth pucker, like your tonsils are getting a lap dance they didn’t know they wanted. But if it seems too sour, water it down a bit or adjust the ingredients — its final taste is totally up to you. Set the sauce aside to cool.
Step 4: Season the whole fish with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity with the lemongrass stalk, lime leaves, ginger, and lemon. Drizzle the cooled tamarind sauce over the fish until the fish is covered, reserving some of the sauce for serving. Let the fish marinate for about 10 minutes while you set up the grill.
Step 5: Preheat the grill or oven to 300 degrees. While it’s warming up, prepare the banana leaves. The leaves come in different sizes; the size of the fish will determine how many you need to wrap it. To prepare the leaves, heat them slightly over an open flame on the stovetop; this will make them more pliable for wrapping. Set the warmed leaves on a baking sheet or on your kitchen counter, and then lightly brush the garlic oil over the top. If you’re using one big leaf, place the fish in the middle and wrap. If you’re using multiple leaves, partially overlap them and place the marinated fish in the middle, then wrap the leaves around the fish and secure with kitchen twine. Grill the fish over indirect heat, aiming for a low-temperature slow roast — this will help the flavors develop and create a more moist fish. Whether you’re grilling or using an oven, the fish should take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour (or more) to cook. You can check for doneness by pressing a finger into the fish’s flesh: if it’s firm to the touch, it is cooked.
Step 6: To serve the fish, arrange the lettuce leaves, herbs, cucumber and tomato slices, steamed rice, lime wedges, and/or any other vegetables you like on a large serving platter. Unwrap the fish and place it in the middle of the platter. Spoon the remaining tamarind sauce over the fish or keep it on the side for your guests to make lettuce wraps or spoon over rice.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa