Blog Post by Elly Yao
Cambodian culture and food is generally not well known here in Cincinnati. The ancient wonder of Angkor Wat temple complex, where Tomb Raider was filmed, is usually one’s initial image of the country. What you may not know is that in the mid 1970’s, Cambodia was taken over by a radical military group called Khmer Rouge, which led to the Cambodian genocide from 1975-1979. Nearly a quarter of the population was killed, including social elites, women, children, elders and many more.
Vy Sok, owner of Mahope Cambodian cuisine, was one of the many Cambodians who escaped their homes. During the darkest time, Vy’s family fled to a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Vy was raised in the refugee camp until age four. An American church organization, hoping to provide shelter for these victims, sponsored Vy, her parents and seven siblings to live in the U.S.
“When I first saw snow falling down from the cloudy grey sky, I thought the world was going to end,” Vy said with a laugh. “My mom had to drag me down from the bed where I was hiding for days.” Eventually, little Vy came out from her comfort zone and touched the cold white snow.
Though they first settled in the Camp Washington neighborhood after moving to Cincinnati, her family and many other Cambodian refugees have now formed a small community in West Chester. They also established a Cambodian temple where cultural holidays are celebrated and worship is still practiced.
Although Vy is busy taking care of her children and elderly parents, she has long had the dream of opening her own Cambodian-style eatery. Things began to take shape last year, when she took a course with Cincinnati entrepreneurship program Mortar, whose mission is to enable under-served entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed. With their help, Vy hopes to put Cambodian cuisine on the map in Cincinnati. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and for me lots of things are falling into place at this moment.”
Vy recently started cooking at a stand at Urban Artifact in Northside, where she will have the chance to serve different dishes like Cambodian sandwich, noodle salad, and crepe. Fans of Vy’s food will be now able to visit Mahope every Saturday night at Urban Artifact starting on May 20th.
2017 marks the first time Cambodian food will be featured at Asian Food Fest, and a second Cambodian vendor Eam Kruesah will also be joining the festival this year. As Cambodia is located between Vietnam and Thailand, one can taste the major influence on food from these neighboring countries. “Cambodian cuisine is less spicy than Thai food, and less salty than Vietnamese food,” Vy said. Because of her cultural background, she wants to bring both fusion and authentic Cambodian dishes to the local food scene, combining traditional flavors with a more playful touch.
Kreoung paste is a lemongrass and herb based spice mix used in many Khmer style dishes. At Asian Food Fest, Vy’s Mahope will be presenting a Cambodian taco: kroeung sauce-marinated chicken, grilled then placed on a corn tortilla. Topped with refreshing green papaya salad, and dazzled with her signature tangy spicy sauce at the end. A vegetarian version featuring soy-based ground beef will also be available.
“Mahope means food in Cambodian,” Vy added. She chose the name because she finds hope in the word. “With the success of Mahope, I would like to give back to the community and the Cambodian people, to help them achieve their own hopes and dreams… by teaching and inspiring them no matter what’s your economic status or where you come from, you can achieve anything you put your heart and mind to.”