Sreymom “Mom” Lund is a familiar face around the Central Market.
She worked at the Asian Green Grocer before scoring a job shuffling pans in the Jamface kitchen. Lund had no cooking experience before then, but her former boss saw her potential and recommended her to Poh Ling Yeow. “Whenever I tried to sell vegetables I spent too much time telling people how to cook the vegetables,” Lund says with a laugh.
She had just completed a masters in nursing when she took what she thought to be a temporary job at Jamface, but she soon craved a “more intensive kitchen” environment and added a role at Thai diner Golden Boy to the CV. For one year she worked at Jamface by day and Golden Boy by night while simultaneously building her own Cambodian catering business on the side. The latter satisfied her desire to cook the food she grew up eating.
“That’s what I loved most, the catering,” Lund tells Broadsheet. “When you cook what you’re passionate about you don’t get tired at all. Seeing that people actually enjoy it means the world. I mean, I get that everywhere I work – even putting vegetables into a plastic bag, I used to like that.”
The 24-year-old is now gearing up to open her first shop, Little Khmer Kitchen, in Central Market Arcade. “One day a regular customer at [Jamface] said, ‘Why are you still here? I remember you saying you want your own place’,” Lund says. “I finished that conversation and went on to Gumtree and saw this shop open.
“I wanted to be in the market [proper] but I’m so young, I don’t have the right savings to get started. When I saw that it was something I can do by myself, where I didn’t have to be out of pocket or borrow I thought, ‘You know what? The time has come’.”
She’s come a long way.
Lund was born in Kampot and orphaned at the age of five. She lived on the streets for a period of time before being adopted by an Australian family and moved with them to Phnom Penh and, eventually, Adelaide.
“Cooking is the only way I can stay connected to who I was,” Lund tells Broadsheet. We’re sitting in the Central Market a few feet away from her new stall and 6200 kilometres from the place she grew up. It’s a past that’s still with her and inextricably linked to her cooking today.
During the time she spent living on the streets, a woman named Ngat, who she calls Yeay (meaning grandmother in Khmer), took her under her wing. “Without her I wouldn’t be here,” says Lund.
“While everyone else who knew me neglected me, she took me on board – not to become a beggar but to stay somewhere safe while she’d go out and beg in the market to bring food back for me.
“I think that’s why I’m always stuck in the [Central] Market – I can’t move past the markets.”
Times spent in that Kampot market are some of Lund’s earliest food memories. It’s where she discovered the flavours and aromas of Khmer cuisine.
“I’d walk around following my grandmother,” says Lund. “People don’t always like to give you money when you’re begging, so they give you food. Some would have food left over on their plates and Yeay would ask for that.
“I got to try a lot of different food; maybe not the full [meal] – sometimes there wasn’t a lot of meat left – but the flavour was still there. If you’ve got the sauce, that’s the base of everything.”
She now cooks through “through the taste of memories”. “[Yeay] is the one who taught me how to cook my first [meal], which is going to be the dish I feature here every day.”
That dish is kor, a “sweet and spicy” stew of pork, hard-boiled eggs, caramalised palm sugar, Kampot pepper (imported from Cambodia) and, usually, water. Lund subs in coconut water for the latter. “I came from a village that’s famous for coconuts, so it’s kind of in my blood,” she says. “Everything has to have coconut in it.”
Another regular will be amok, a steamed fish curry (“our national dish,” says Lund) cooked and served in banana leaves. “It’s so light and airy and super healthy,” says Lund. “It has zero oil, except for the coconut oil which comes from the coconut milk.”
You can also expect a take on Cambodia’s traditional stuffed frogs – chicken wings packed with kroeung (a ubiquitous Cambodian spice paste) – and chicken and beef skewers. “It looks just like every other satay,” Lund says of the latter, “but it’s the flavour that represents Cambodia.”
Kroeung, made from lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric, will be found in most dishes. “In Cambodia … we use that in [all] cooking,” says Lund. “My fish curry will have it; my typical curry will have it; my skewer will have it; my sauce will have it.”
Lund plans to serve breakfast, too: a congee-like rice porridge called bor bor, banana fritters, and waffles with seasonal berries, coconut and vanilla ice-cream – “because I love eating ice cream for breakfast,” she says.
“Most things we serve can be eaten for breakfast [though]. In Cambodia we like to eat the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
And while the shop’s branding might call this stuff “street food”, Lund says it’s all traditional home cooking. “It’s street food, it’s also in-home food … in Cambodia everything is kind of just one.”
The stall itself, a former sausage shop, is a small and simple set-up: a timber bar and high stools peer into the kitchen, where Lund will turn out breakfast and lunch daily and dinner on Friday nights.
“Everyone said, ‘Look for something bigger, that’s too small’, but I think it’s perfect. It reminds me of all the market stalls we have back at home where you barely have any space to sit.
“For me it’s not about size, it’s about doing what you’re happy about.”
Little Khmer Kitchen will soft-open at Shop 56 in Central Market Arcade on Monday October 15. It will trade with a limited menu from 9am to 5pm each day until the official opening on Friday October 19.