My favorite dish at Nyum Bai, chef Nite Yun’s Oakland, Calif., restaurant, which opened in 2018, is a pile of shredded cabbage, vegetables, herbs and poached chicken on a plate. It’s deceptively simple-looking, but upon first bite, the layers of flavor and texture begin to unfold. First, a wave of salt and umami from the fish sauce hits, then sweetness. Next comes crunch from the cabbage and peanuts, a floral burst of air from the Thai basil, and finally, a satisfying smack of acid from rice vinegar and lime. It’s a revelation.
To anyone who’s not familiar with her, Nite might seem similarly understated. At first glance, she’s just cooking the food of her homeland in her tiny restaurant a stone’s throw from the BART tracks. But for some Americans, a mention of Cambodia brings to mind little more than violence and genocide. For Nite, cooking is a way to tell another story about Cambodia—about its beautiful culture, resilient people and unbelievably delicious cuisine. And people are listening. In the past two years, she and Nyum Bai have been honored by just about every food publication in the country. But more importantly, she is changing America’s relationship to Cambodia, one exquisite dish at a time.
Nosrat is a chef, author and host of Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat