Amok Food Cart
Serving Simple Foods of Cambodia
Tuesday Jul. 1st, 2014
When I meet up with her, Sreyroth Phon is making egg rolls in a small cargo trailer which has been converted to a kitchen. The trailer is 6 by 12 feet and has just enough space for her small frame to move around in. Her kitchen includes a three compartment sink, a sandwich refrigerator, and two wok burners. Sreyroth’s head is wrapped in a krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf, and she smiles.
Born in Kompong Cham, Cambodia, the owner of Amok, Bozeman’s newest mobile food eatery, is splitting time between various tasks tonight, which include grinding pork for egg rolls, taking orders from customers, and expertly cooking rice noodles in one of her two giant hand hammered Chinese woks. Though it must be at least ninety degrees in the trailer, Sreyroth isn’t breaking a sweat.
Amok is the name of her first business in the US, and is also the name of one of her signature Cambodian dishes: a fish curry, steamed in a banana leaf bowl. It’s available on special request only, since the curry’s preparation is so time consuming and laborious.
Phon arrived in America just over a year ago. She knows of just one other Cambodian living in Bozeman, a student, and though the cuisine of her homeland tends to be under appreciated, she thought it deserved a showing in Montana.
“Thai food is more well known and spicier than Cambodian, but my country’s food is healthier and fresher. It utilizes fresh vegetables and simple sauces. I think the people of Bozeman really care about that.”
I, for one, agree. I’ve extensively traveled throughout both Thailand and Cambodia, and though I love Thai food, I found Cambodian dishes easier to digest. The cooking is simple, the flavors subtle. Cambodian cuisine doesn’t rely on flaming hot peppers to impress. Some simple fish sauce, a little sugar, and fried garlic, combined properly, do the trick.
Sreyroth’s assertion that Bozeman is embracing the simplicity of Cambodian food is not made unduly. Amok itself was made possible by 173 backers, mostly from Bozeman, who pledged money to help start the business through the crowd funding website kickstarter.com. (The project’s web address is: https://www.kickstarter.com/ projects/1318667184/bai-a-cambodian-food-trailer-in-bozeman-montana)
Though most Kickstarter projects of this type tend to offer a small incentive to backers for pledging, Phon didn’t want to take anything without giving as much back. Backers to her project received punch cards worth double their donations.
“I wanted to use Kickstarter to find out whether Bozeman even wanted Cambodian food in the first place,” Sreyroth, known to her friends as Sunflower, tells me. “If my project wasn’t funded, then I’d know not to try to start my business.”
But her Kickstarter project was successful and even surpassed her goal of $9,000, which she used toward converting a work trailer into her kitchen. I can tell there was a lot of creative thinking involved in it’s construction. The equipment is efficiently laid out, and not an inch is wasted.
Though the Amok trailer is small, Sreyroth accomplishes a lot with it. She is out cooking and serving Cambodian food in Bozeman most days and nights of the week and doesn’t plan on taking a break anytime soon.
She says, “When I first came to America, I knew I had to work hard to succeed. I think about my family back home every day. I want something better for them.”
Sreyroth tells me that she eventually wants to bring her mother, who sells vegetables at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and her sister, who sells souvenirs, to the United States. And her father?
“My father left my mother when I was young. I had to grow up very fast so that I could take care of my sister and brother.”
She leaves the details of that period of her life unsaid. I can tell it’s when the determined and hard working nature of her character was forged.
A customer walks up to the window, looking at the small menu. Sreyroth greets the man with a big smile, which is never far from her lips, and recommends what she says is quickly becoming an Amok favorite, Khmer Chaa Krueng. According to Amok’s menu, Chaa Krueng is “an exotic concoction of lemongrass and tumeric” served with chicken or pork. It’s a curry, but isn’t heavy like Indian curry. It’s rich and has a deep orange color, which comes from the tumeric, she tells me, and lots of lemongrass.
Sreyroth laughs as she tells me how much lemongrass she uses in a week. “For the first couple of weeks, when I would go to Smith’s, the produce clerks would look at me funny when I said I needed all the lemongrass they had. They asked me, ‘Are you sure?’.”
Like most of Amok’s menu, Chaa Krueng’s preparation is an art unto itself. Phon is up early every day prepping for lunch and up late washing dishes in her small trailer. She has plans for introducing Cambodian cuisine to Bozeman in doses, but admits to me that many of her recipes don’t lend themselves well to mobile vending.
“I have so many ideas for menu items that just don’t work as street food, so I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to bring their essence to my menu.”
Phon tells me she would like to serve some of the simple soups of Cambodia, called som’ la, and the famous grilled fish dishes, too. “I’m doing the best that I can with this space. All in good time,” she says, then grins that infectious smile.
So perhaps a brick and mortar restaurant is in the future? Sreyroth won’t say, but considering the success she is experiencing after only three weeks, one can only assume that Amok may have a more permanent home this winter, serving authentic healthy and delicious Cambodian food in Bozeman.
Amok is out on the streets of Bozeman and at the Livingston farmers’ market. Locations and times are still in flux, but you can be sure to stay up to date by following Amok at facebook.com/amokthetruck, or on twitter, @amoktrailer.
Dru Dixon is a photographer and writer, loves ethnic food but hates the term “ethnic food”, and lives in Bozeman, Montana.