With the opening of the doors at Nyum Bai this week came chef-owner Nite Yun’s hope that the music spilling out to the patio would carry a story as rich and complex as the Cambodian soul food coming out of her kitchen.
For Yun, it’s an opportunity to share a more personal picture of Cambodian history, one that is still overshadowed by memories of a genocidal civil war. “If people do know anything about Cambodia it’s always the Angkor Wat or the genocide,” Yun told Eater days before Nyum Bai’s opening this week. “But there’s this rich and beautiful history that not a lot of people know about.”
In her first standalone restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, Nyum Bai’s soundtrack is an integral part of that rich history. Several hundred deep cuts from Cambodia’s golden era of pop music in the 1950s and 1960s accompany every plate of kuri saramann or green papaya salad. The songs echo back to the days when Yun’s parents — like many others of their generation — were just a pair of carefree Cambodian teenagers, before the country was drawn into the war with Vietnam and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge.
The history and rediscovery of Cambodian pop was chronicled in the 2015 documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, but for the younger generation of Cambodian-Americans, the songs of the era now serve as a reminder of a shared culture and lively spirit that was nearly snuffed out.
From Cambodia to California
In the late 1970s, Yun’s parents fled Cambodia while her mother was pregnant with her older brother. Yun herself was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, but as she was growing up, her parents rarely discussed the realities of their time there, or the toll it took on them.
Shortly after Yun was born, her family emigrated to California, landing among a Cambodian enclave in Stockton. Like many immigrant populations, building a community meant lots of home cooking and outdoor barbecues that inevitably morphed into ad hoc celebrations.
“In this apartment complex,” Yun said, ”it’s mainly immigrants, refugees that live there, but in certain apartments they would turn their home into a restaurant.” Diners would visit one neighbor’s house to buy noodle soup, another to buy porridge, and yet another to purchase snacks.
In the summers, the moveable feast would swell beyond the confines of apartment kitchens and spill out into the parks, emulating the outdoor markets of Phnom Penh.
“It’s not an official food festival,” Yun said. “You come, people set up their stalls, and then you know when you see a mob of people sitting there with the smoke coming out that they’re selling food.”
Although the city would occasionally shut down the impromptu markets, vendors would often shake off police by telling them it was just a family celebration — albeit one with a whole lot of family.
“That’s where you can find the really good food,” Yun said, recalling the green papaya salad that now appears on Nyum Bai’s menu. It was where you’d go to meet other Cambodians over beef skewers and the best homemade Kwah-Ko sausages.
As an adult, those memories fueled Yun’s trips to Cambodia, where conversations with her extended family unravelled into difficult memories and, eventually, laughter. She finally heard how her parents met, and how her aunts hid her mother from the guards at the refugee camp by rolling her in a straw mat and concealing her under a wooden plank.
Engaging with the cuisine of her ancestral home had been in the back of her mind since she was young, Yun said, but the real inspiration didn’t strike until she finally had the opportunity to visit Cambodia as an adult and learn more about her parents’ journey to the States.
On her fifth trip, while sitting in one of her usual spots at the outdoor market and eating her favorite bowl of kuy teav phnom penh, everything finally made sense.
The birth of Nyum Bai
Over the past four years, Yun’s idea for a restaurant serving Cambodian flavors followed a familiar path through the local food scene: With help and encouragement from food business incubator La Cocina, Yun built a following by serving bowls of noodle soup at Mission pop-ups, catering private events, and operating a stall at the Emeryville Public Market. When the opportunity to take over the Half Orange space came up, “it just felt right.”
Despite the difficulties of opening a restaurant in the Bay Area, Yun says the hardest part about moving into a brick-and-mortar space was coming up with the menu.“I felt like I was trying to cater to too many people. But then, I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to put everything that I love to eat growing up, food that I miss, food that I love.’”
To that end, Nyum Bai’s menu ranges from night market staples, like that revelatory bowl of Kuy Teav Phnom Penh, to special ceremonial dishes like kuri moan. Now, just a couple years after La Cocina lured her into the program by asking her to cater an internal meeting, she’s read to show off her two signature dishes: prahok ktiss, a common dip for fresh veggies made from pork belly, fermented fish, coconut milk; and machoo kroeung soup, made with beef sauteed in lemongrass paste, tamarind, Thai eggplant, and a whole roasted jalapeño.
Joining a thriving culinary community
In Fruitvale, Yun is excited to join the existing community that passes by Nyum Bai’s new kitchen window. A block away, fellow La Cocina alum Reem Assil of Reem’s California recently received a Best Chef West nomination from the James Beard Foundation, putting her fast-casual Arab bakery in the same category as local culinary heavyweights Dominique Crenn, Joshua Skenes, Kim Alter, and others. But until now, Fruitvale seems somewhat unaffected by the forces re-shaping the rest of the Bay Area.
“I love that it hasn’t changed much yet,” she said. “It reminds me of the old Mission in San Francisco,” when “street food” referred to empanada stands, rather than a category of sit-down restaurants. The carts nearby on Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard might be selling tamales, but for Yun, they evoke that same nostalgia for Cambodia, where food stalls line every corner.
“Each time I came back [to Fruitvale], I stood behind the kitchen looking out at the patio and it was the same feeling again — like how I felt when I was in Cambodia, when I had that epiphany of like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to start my own food business.’
“I heard the music, the colors, the people, and everything just came to life. I was like, ‘Okay. This is it.’“