A sip of soup was the catalyst for Nite Yun to decide to start her own restaurant. It was 2013, and Yun was working as a nurse in San Francisco. But as a Cambodian native, she wasn’t excited about the quality and availability of Cambodian food in the city and longed for food closer to the bright, complex cuisine she grew up eating in her native country.
Yun began traveling back and forth to Cambodia. And one day, while enjoying a bowl of kuy teav phnom penh (a pork soup), something clicked, and Yun decided to take matters into her own hands—literally—and open her own restaurant.
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Not long after, good fortune struck at a street fair when she met a representative from La Cocina, a Bay-area food incubator program that helps people start food businesses. Yun applied and got accepted into the program and eventually started a pop-up selling Cambodian food based on her mother’s recipes, which she transcribed over long-distance calls to her mom back in Cambodia.
Yun shared with me her disappointment at how many people in the West associate Cambodia with violence and genocide. She wants to show a different side of the country; Yun strives to highlight the culture, music, and resilient character of the Cambodian people, all through the context of delicious food. Her Oakland-based restaurant, Nyum Bai, opened in 2018 and soon Yun was recognized on Time Magazine’s “100 Next” list and named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2019.
At the restaurant, Yun imports tablecloths from Cambodia and plays a loop of 13 Cambodian rock songs during service—the ambiance is strong. One of the things I ate at her restaurant was neorm sach moan, a cabbage salad with shreds of chicken and a bold dressing made with rice vinegar and fish sauce.
The salad has been on the menu since Nyum Bai opened. Yun explained how the dish is the perfect bridge for Americans wanting to try Cambodian food. “It’s a good representation; it’s not Americanized, yet it’s approachable. Cambodian food is new to a lot of folks. I don’t want to introduce a recipe that’s too complex.”
The salad is simple, but it’s layered and nuanced with heat from the chiles, umami from the fish sauce, and plenty of herbal notes from handfuls of fresh mint, cilantro, and Thai basil.
Neorm Sach Moan (Chicken Salad with Cabbage and Fish Sauce)For a fresh, herb-packed chicken salad, we turned to a chef who has made it her personal mission to bring Cambodian food to America.
It’s another recipe she learned from her mother. Yun recalled, “We grew up in a really bad neighborhood. So I just hung out in the kitchen . . . I remember helping my mom shave a bunch of cabbage and picking a bunch of basil . . . Poaching the chicken was one of my favorite parts. I would be able to pick off the skin and sneak a bite.”
She explained that in Cambodia this salad is traditionally served for birthday parties or other celebrations and not as an everyday meal.
The recipe is delicious and easy to make. This poaching method cooks the chicken very gently. We opt to use boneless, skinless chicken breasts for convenience, but since chicken breasts are prone to drying out, we recommend bringing the water to just a simmer, not a boil, to prevent overcooking the chicken. And speaking of the chicken, it’s meant to be a component of the salad here, but it doesn’t dominate; it won’t seem like a lot of chicken, because it’s not.
At her restaurant, Yun uses a mandoline to do much of the work of shredding the cabbage and other produce quickly and uniformly. She changes the vegetables she uses seasonally; when I was there, the salad featured thinly sliced Persian cucumbers and mizuna (a Japanese mustard green that has the pepperiness of arugula and some bitterness like frisée).
After stirring together the dressing, shredding the vegetables and poached chicken, and tossing it all together, all there is to do is put it on a platter and enjoy this lively, refreshing salad. And if you want to take a cue from Yun on the ambiance front, you can put on some Cambodian pop or rock music from the 1960s while you eat.