Illustrations by Mimi Leung
Four articles from Lucky Peach were nominated for James Beard awards this year. We are posting all of them this week for your reading pleasure. Yesterday it was Fuchsia Dunlop on London’s Chinatown. Today, the handsomely mustachioed Richard Parks on the Cambodian-California doughnut connection.
For writing a piece in this magazine, I was offered a lifetime of free doughnuts.
It was my last night in Oakland before a month and a half of traveling and eating in Cambodia, and I was getting my last licks in at my favorite home-style American restaurant. The owner, with whom I am friendly, had heard I was going on assignment for a food publication. She came over to my table to pitch me an article about her restaurant. In exchange, she’d grant me as many free doughnuts as I could eat. (Her restaurant sells an upscale version of.)
I demurred—which is to say I didn’t flat turn down the offer, but I didn’t promise anything either. Doughnuts struck me as an incongruous kind of payola, and it seemed irresponsible to huck my journalistic integrity for free access to a pastry I’m no great fan of. Besides, my quote-unquote assignment at the time consisted of little more than a punny title—“Khmerican Food”—and the vague understanding that something would pan out in Cambodia. I had no idea what kind of story I’d bring back to the States. For sure, I couldn’t have guessed I’d end up writing about doughnuts.
But it turns out you can’t write about the cuisines of American and Cambodia—Khmerican food—without writing about doughnuts. Aside from the many doughnuts made by Cambodians, it’s very difficult to find Cambodian food in the States. The connection between Cambodia and American pastry entrepreneurship is most pronounced in California, where, by one recent count, 90 percent of all independent doughnut shops are owned by Cambodians.
Doughnuts are big business in California. The California Restaurant Association estimates approximately 2,400 shops currently operating independently in the state. With slim profit margins but low-low overhead costs, doughnut purveyors have been rolling in it since the industry boomed in the 1980s—also the decade the number of Cambodians living in the United States swelled to 150,000, with the majority settling in California. Overwhelmingly, the new immigrants did not start making the kind of food they grew up with, at least not in restaurants. There are just four Cambodian restaurants in the city of Oakland—granted, that’s probably four more than in most American cities—but it’s almost impossible to find a chocolate glazed here that isn’t rolled and fried by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.
The story of how this came to be boils down to one man, Ted Ngoy. Ngoy was living in Thailand when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of his country in 1975. Instead of returning home to Cambodia, where the Maoist revolutionary leadership was advancing a genocide that would result in the death of one-third of the entire Cambodian population over the next four years, Ngoy came to the United States. With no English skills, but possessed of a wily entrepreneurial spirit, Ngoy soon began working in a doughnut shop in Southern California. After a while, he saved enough money to open his own shop. Then, as the story goes, under Ngoy’s influence and example, scores of other Cambodian refugees followed suit, with whole families working for cheap around the clock to best their rivals’ profit margins. Newer war refugees followed relatives or friends to work in those same doughnut shops. And once they saved up enough to try something on their own, it only followed that that would be doughnuts. Ngoy’s nephew opened up a doughnut supply business, B&H, that offered easy credit to Cambodians hoping to get into the business of doughnuts, and soon Cambodians had the market pretty much cornered. Doughnuts became the proverbial bootstraps by which an entire immigrant community pulled itself up in America, and specifically in California—just as laundry was for Chinese at one time, or gardening for Japanese, and later Mexican immigrants. And Ngoy became the so-called king of the Cambodian doughnut.
By the mid-1990s, Cambodian doughnut entrepreneurs in California like Ngoy were talking expansion. They had already nearly broken the powerful Winchell’s franchise, which had shrunk from a thousand stores statewide before the Cambodian immigrant boom to just over a hundred in 1995. At the peak, there were an estimated 2,400 Cambodian doughnut shops in the state, and even talk of global expansion. “We are looking to go to China,” one Cambodian doughnuteer boasted in an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1995. As Cambodia slowly recovered from Pol Pot’s genocidal reign through the 1980s and 1990s and into the aughts, some Cambodians returned to their homeland. It seemed only a matter of time before California’s doughnut entrepreneurs tapped into the Cambodian market.
I figured that upon my arrival in Cambodia, I’d find maple bars and crullers served at every street stall, perhaps a chain of shops named for Ngoy. Barring that, I’d discover an ancient deep-fried sugary doughnut ancestor. The great Cambodian American doughnut surge must have some clear antecedent in the food of Ngoy’s homeland, I thought, where I planned to travel extensively. Surely I’d find some clues in the ancient sculpted temples of Angkor, in the streets of Phnom Penh, or the jungles of Samlaut.
II. The only doughnut shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I’d been in Phnom Penh for weeks before I realized the doughnuts weren’t just going to present themselves. I’d been busy eating everywhere from the most exaggeratedly touristy pub-type joints along the waterfront (in one case with a fully Cambodian band rocking American favorites, including “Baby, I Love Your Way”), to thirty-cent noodle stands, to the expat mainstay the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (I ate a burger, shared several pitchers of daiquiris with a friend passing through town, and didn’t see a single Cambodian not in waitstaff uniform). I took the great majority of my meals in the most local of local joints (always with cats underfoot, and Khmer “beer girls” in branded uniforms eagerly refilling my glass as soon as it dipped slightly below totally full), but I hit up a few Western joints too—even the hyperbole of KFC (the Colonel has an astonishing multiplatform ad campaign in Cambodia, but relatively few restaurants)—in search of doughnuts, but so far hadn’t encountered a single one.
I Googled. I found USA Donuts, said to be the only doughnut shop in Phnom Penh, which is the capital and largest city in Cambodia (population 2.3 million). It was just a kilometer from my hotel. I decided to walk, shaking off moto and tuk-tuk drivers flanking the city streets. I needed the time to think over the implications of this: the Internet—and my thus-far fruitless search—was telling me I wasn’t just off base, but 100 percent wrong in assuming that the Khmerican doughnut had anything to do with Cambodian cuisine, present or past.
The only doughnut shop in Phnom Penh faces a British elementary school on a dusty street in the center of the city. I walked through a wide-open doorframe under sparkling silver Christmas-tree garlands and past displays of Corn Nuts and 24-packs of Red Bull to a Plexiglas display counter, where I ordered a chocolate glazed. It came served on a plastic plate with a fork and serrated knife. The initial feeling that this kind of comestible was completely out of place here was augmented by how awkward it was to eat a doughnut with fork and knife. Still, overall, the thing stood up to my highest standards of doughnut craft—my knife gently crunched through the sugary granules of the deep brown settled icing before passing easily through the soft, aerated dough. I couldn’t eat more than one. It reminded me of school-yard birthday parties.
A slight, short, pretty Khmer woman in a black crocheted top entertained my journalistic queries from behind the counter. When I produced a notebook and explained my intention to write something about doughnuts for an American publication, she disappeared into a back room and returned with a heavyset Khmer man wearing a tank-top. His hair was mussed and he appeared to have just awoken from an afternoon nap—he’d been up since the middle of the night making doughnuts, it turned out. These were the owners/proprietors of USA Donuts—a man named Tea NyNy and his wife, Seang Chakriya. They joined me at the linoleum table where I was finishing off my glazed.
Me: Why do you call it “USA Donuts”?
Tea: It’s easy—everybody knows, it’s an easy name.
Me: But you started this shop in Phnom Penh?
Tea: Yes—six years ago.
Me: How did you learn about doughnuts—from your parents?
Tea: I live in USA since 1980. Long Beach. I work at Capitol Donuts. Everything we take from the [United States].
So the only doughnut shop over here, it turned out, could be traced back to California. Tea had learned his trade as a refugee in the United States and like the doughnuteers of the mid-nineties boom times, figured expansion to other countries was the next step. But in Cambodia, despite Tea’s best efforts, the doughnut business was not booming. Seang laid it out for me: Cambodians just don’t like doughnuts that much.
“Khmer don’t like too much sweet,” she said, smiling.
Plus, at up to three thousand riels each (about one US dollar), a doughnut can cost as much as a filling, nutritious plate of mee cha—fried noodles with beef and bok choy—from a street stall. “There are lots of foreigners in this area,” Tea says. USA Donuts makes most of its money from the wholesale import of American products—the aforementioned Corn Nuts and Red Bulls, for example. At one point, the couple tried to open a second storefront in another area of Phnom Penh, but it didn’t take, according to Seang. At this point the business was just getting by.
“Doughnuts don’t make money—lose money,” she told me matter-of-factly, shaking her head.
III. Every doughnut shop tells a thousand stories
When I got home, I Googled again, and found that while the Cambodian doughnut boom might not be as booming as it once was, the trend is far from finished.
I live in a mostly residential swatch of North Oakland called Temescal. Proceeding by foot from my house, the first doughnut-exclusive establishment I come upon—just two short blocks west and one block north—is indeed owned and staffed by Cambodians. Another two blocks to the north, a second shop is also Cambodian owned. And a half mile farther north, there’s a third. This last one, Johnny’s Café and Donuts, also sells Chinese food. (It’s a uniquely Californian pairing—doughnuts and Chinese under the same roof—that may have more to do with ethnically Chinese Cambodians than with Chinese nationals, as we’ll get to a little later.)
Johnny’s Café and Donuts sits on the dilapidated far edge of the city beneath a busy freeway and BART train overpass. The building—a squat, redbrick affair—is aggressively gated against break-ins, its hand-painted glass windows marqueed with Chinese food to go and discount prices. A handful of regulars gathered at the white-top linoleum tables on a recent sunny afternoon, poring over free weeklies and sidling up to the glass displays to order fresh maple logs, plates of chow mein, and steaming cups of coffee in Styrofoam cups.
Johnny Kauv, a stout man of fifty-five, wears Levi’s, a blue-checked button-up shirt, and a black ball cap. When he shakes your hand, he smiles warmly, and then it feels a little funny, because Johnny is missing a couple of fingers.
Over glazed doughnuts, Johnny and I talk about his childhood in the Kampong Thom province of Cambodia. Like many Cambodians from his province, Johnny is Khmer-Chen—a Cambodian with Chinese ancestry. His father, who immigrated from China, cooked Chinese food; his mother, a third-generation Khmer-Chen, cooked Cambodian.
The easiest way to describe traditional Khmer cuisine to an American is to say that it’s like Thai food but not as spicy. But of course that’s not nearly the whole story.
In Khmer language, the verb “to eat,” yam bai, literally translates as “eat rice.” Klean bai, which is how you say you are hungry, literally translates as “hunger for rice.” Rice is the staple accompaniment of every meal in Cambodia, and a driving force behind the economy. The grain is an accompaniment to a variety of meats—mostly fish from the abundant Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers—usually spiced with some combination of lemongrass, soy, and ginger. Popular dishes like amok (fish curry) and salam machu (sweet-and-sour fish soup) employ simply prepared ingredients and bright, fresh flavors to produce some of the most delicious, healthy—yet relatively unknown—peasant food the world over.
In Kampong Thom, Johnny passed his days helping his mother run a small business (most business owners in Cambodia are Chinese or Khmer-Chen) selling flour and sugar to farmers. At night, the family of nine would eat salam machu, cha trop (roasted eggplant and spiced pork with basil), and amok, and tell stories to shake off the day’s hard work. Fish from the river, vegetables from the land, and animals caught in the jungle and slaughtered to eat: Johnny’s childhood diet was the stuff current farm-to-table enthusiasts dream about. That is, until the war started.
Like most Cambodian refugees, Johnny’s English is not great. (It’s hard to imagine two more different languages than Khmer and English, and Johnny didn’t have any language training before coming to the United States, already in his twenties.) As with most Khmer people I spoke with, you get the sense that he is always waiting for you—it is only a matter of time—to ask him about his experience during the Khmer Rouge, the “Pol Pot time.” The topic is basically impossible to skirt—and I don’t want to skirt it anyhow. While I found few doughnuts in Cambodia, I met some of the most open, kind-hearted people I’d ever encountered—so many that it is hard to square the culture’s disposition with the very recent genocide it endured. A half-hour chat about food with Johnny quickly turns into a three-hour recollection of the war. The subject comes up naturally, while we are talking about doughnuts.
During the war, Johnny was displaced from his hometown, and separated from his family. He nearly starved to death. At the work camp where he was placed in forced labor, Johnny would go without food for a full day, sometimes more, while enduring hard, manual labor under the hot sun. He was helping build a massive irrigation dam in the countryside, the site of thousands of deaths. I visited the eerily beautiful place one evening as the sun set over water stretching out and out to both sides of the horizon. Though many died before the dam project was completed, Johnny, who was in high school at the time the war broke out, survived. He got by. He was lucky. During the KR’s reign, Johnny’s family was reduced from nine people to five. Some were carried away by the KR, never to come back. Others, less resilient than Johnny, died of starvation. There was no medicine to battle sickness. If you fell ill, you usually died.
Johnny’s story is common among the hundreds of thousands of refugees now living abroad in the United States, France, Canada, and elsewhere. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted an unprecedented radical socialist reform. The idea was to create an agrarian state of happy peasants, but the regime quickly devolved into paranoia and mass, indiscriminate killings that decimated the country and left nearly a third of the total population—three million people by some counts—dead. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,” one of their slogans went. Many of the perpetrators live on with impunity to this day—a handful, some in their eighties, are finally on trial for war crimes and genocide in an international court. At most, they will spend their limited remaining years in prison.
In December 1978, the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia; by January 1979, they had taken Phnom Penh and unseated the Khmer Rouge government. Johnny was in Phnom Penh at the time. He had to see it with his own eyes, so he went to Tuol Sleng—the high school converted into a prison, torture chamber, and execution grounds under the Khmer Rouge, and one of the most infamous, bloody sites of Khmer Rouge atrocities. It’s now a museum dedicated to the genocide, where thousands of portrait photos of victims hang—like the Nazis, the KR were meticulous about cataloging their barbarity. Grotesque photographs of emaciated corpses advertise the tourist destination in nearly every tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng brass had fled by the time Johnny arrived on the day of the invasion, having brutally murdered the last remaining prisoners (the Khmer Rouge mostly killed without bullets). Johnny saw a heap of decapitated bodies. He walked on, through the empty city streets, to safety.
Johnny marched out of the city under the protection of the Vietnamese, and soon found himself living at the Khao-I-Dang Holding Center, a massive refugee camp just across the Thai border. On the day of the Vietnamese invasion, Khao-I-Dang was little more than a collection of improvised bamboo and thatch structures, but it grew quickly. By the end of the calendar year, the camp population had swelled to more than 80,000, and by spring of 1980, 160,000 refugees were living there.
The only direction Johnny could imagine going was out, away, far from the atrocities of his homeland. Resettlement was his goal, and after about a year at Khao-I-Dang, Johnny managed to move to the Philippines for a brief time. He eventually came to the United States as a refugee, to San Francisco, in May 1981. By the time he arrived here, friends and family were already working in doughnut shops up and down the coast of California. Johnny wanted to continue his education. He took ESL classes and then enrolled in community college, but soon found himself working in his cousin’s doughnut shop in Alameda as a way to make a living.
Johnny doesn’t love doughnuts, but, yeah, he eats them sometimes—he owns a doughnut shop after all. His kids eat more doughnuts than he does—so many that Johnny’s stopped bringing home the bags of leftovers from the shop each night, for fear that they will overindulge. Mostly, he cooks for the family at home, the same Khmer and Chinese staples that he grew up eating in Kampong Thom. But Johnny isn’t pushing back any plates. He’s even developed a charming Homer Simpsonesque paunch since settling in America.
Johnny was loath to elaborate on the astonishing, unpredictable narrative of his gustatory life: from a diet of healthy peasant food plucked from the field and river, to his near starvation in KR work camps, to the sugary decadence of the American doughnut. It doesn’t seem remarkable to Johnny that he, and so many of his countrymen, work selling doughnuts in the United States, though he wasn’t offended that I asked.
IV. The (Cambodian) Chinese “doughnut”—no relation
Everybody laughed when I asked for them. Night was falling and I was with three friends—one Cambodian American and two locals—at the open-air stalls on the fringes of the bustling Psar O Russei in central Phnom Penh. The night air was typically soupy warm. I was in the mood for bobor, a chicken and rice porridge similar to Vietnamese pho or the pan-Asian congee. I hadn’t had it yet during my trip, nor had I sampled the accompanying chavay—a savory fried bread that’s the closest Khmer staple to an American doughnut in taste and physical aspect.
The porridge came in a transparent plastic bag tied at its edge in a loop for easy transport on the handlebars of a moto or dangled from a hooked finger. I paid the man in riels and stared blankly at the stacks of bread, fried in oil that morning, heaped behind him in his stall.
“I’d like to eat some delicious chavay, thank you,” I said in my broken Khmer.
My friends laughed, as they always did when I tried to speak Khmer. The stall keeper laughed as well, and rejoined with something hilarious I’ll never know the meaning of, as he filled a basket with a half dozen of the pillowy, soft, golden loaves, each about the size and shape of the French éclair. No Khmer would eat chavay and bobor at night, my friend told me—it’d be like ordering French toast for your supper.
The chavay’s consistency was similar to that of the American doughnut but it broke apart a bit more like a baguette (which is also pretty pervasive in Cambodia due to the French colonial history). It looked and felt quite like an American doughnut, and thus the shorthand “Chinese doughnut,” but it was missing a key ingredient of our favorite pastry: refined sugar. Upending the quintessential trait of the American doughnut, its sweetness, chavay is savory, often flavored with salt. Also, the Khmer flour used in chavay is just more country—chunkier, not refined like American brands used at Johnny’s or USA Donuts. And chavay is shaped more like a maple log or beefy Popsicle than a classic round doughnut.
Lastly, and most decisively, chavay is a direct relation to youtiao, the Chinese fried bread staple that reiterates itself across Asian culinary traditions—aka the Chinese doughnut. It is a relatively common accompaniment to liquids like soup or soy milk, and not a stand-alone treat like the American doughnut, which can be more easily traced through European traditions.
I enjoyed my chavay. It tasted a bit like fry bread I’d once used to sop up lamb stew on a Navajo reservation, or like a lighter, airier version of the Yorkshire pudding my father makes with a roast on holidays.
As I dipped the savory fried bread loaves into my bobor and watched them expand and fill with broth, I wondered if I’d ever really believed in what I’d been after—some kind of ancestral Cambodian ur-doughnut. It felt more than ever like the sort of simple explanation one foolishly pursues when trying to answer a complicated question. Why do so many Cambodians run doughnut shops in the United States? It felt almost offensive to ask. Why did any of us end up in this country? Why did any of us end up doing what we do?
V. Back to Oakland
Back in my neighborhood in Oakland, local Cambodian-owned shops are increasingly giving way to boutique $4 coffee establishments, not to mention upscale, vegan, and bacon-sprinkled doughnut remixes. But I still feel compelled to linger in the shops along Telegraph Avenue like Lee’s Donuts & Croissants, where Cambodians work from the middle of the night until evening, making and selling America’s true doughnuts.
Lee’s is flanked on one side by a cavernous wig store, and a check-cashing place and a Subway on the other. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the joint was fairly banging, with a half dozen or so customers coming and going at any point. Relatively few doughnuts were being consumed. Like many ostensibly doughnutcentric establishments in the area, Lee’s seems to move more Quick Picks and Scratchers than doughnuts. I ordered a coffee and a straight glazed from Sabrina, who runs the counter, for $1.35, and sat at the booth closest to the door.
An oil-paint rendering of Angkor Wat—the twelfth-century temple complex I visited in Cambodia—hung on a wall above a door. When the door opened, a wide-smiling, aproned Cambodian woman appeared with a mop. Through the doorway behind her I saw a shiny golden Buddha statue with an American dollar bill hung around its neck. As she pushed the mop across the tiled floor, I once again asked the obvious question: Why do so many Cambodians work in doughnut shops? She burst into friendly laughter, as if it had never occurred to her. “I don’t know,” she said. “I have no clue.”
From behind the counter, Sabrina tells me an anecdote about traveling back to her homeland for the first time with her American-born son, and their misadventures trying to find him an American doughnut. They were visiting family in Battambang, and he had to wait days until they returned to Phnom Penh, where they finally found one—probably at USA Donuts. Sabrina tells me she makes chavay at home, but her kids have a taste for the sugary treats she brings home from work.
A customer leaning on the glass display case nearby was methodically rubbing out his Scratcher results with the edge of a quarter, one by one. He overheard our conversation. “Cambodians,” he said to nobody in particular. “Cambodian ladies are pretty. I saw that when I was in Vietnam.”
I told the man about the connection between Cambodia and America’s doughnuts. Did he know about that? He did not. And how often did he come here, to Lee’s? About once a day.
The man rubbed out the last silvery shiny patch on his Scratcher ticket, bid the shop patrons a good day, and stepped through the door, his exit sounded by a musical “bee-boo.” I sat for a moment, watching the ladies work. I stopped asking questions about doughnuts. I took a sip out of my Styrofoam cup of coffee, wiped the last crusted sugar flakes out of my mustache, and walked out into the sunlight.
In his definitive doughnut history, Glazed America, Paul R. Mullins attributes the sweet doughnut to Crusaders in Medieval Europe, then follows it through to the cookies and beignets of France, and finally to America. What chavay is now is probably closer to a seventh-century Tang Dynasty “doughnut” than it is to a modern American doughnut.
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May 1, 2013 | 47 notes