Cookbook author and media star Padma Lakshmi holds a plate of amok trays made in the kitchen of Simply Khmer, a Cambodian restaurant in Lowell. She came to Lowell to highlight Cambodian food while filming the “Taste the Nation” show. Her second season premiered on Hulu on May 5, 2023, with the episode “On the Tip of My Clown” featuring the family-run restaurant. (courtesy Hulu)
Lowell — The city may have the second-largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S., after Long Beach, California, but Lowell is the home of cookbook author Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu food show. ‘s new season “Taste the Nation.”
The series takes viewers on a culinary adventure across America, “exploring the rich and diverse communities that have largely shaped American cuisine today.”
Lakshmi chose Simply Khmer, a family-run Cambodian restaurant on Lincoln Street just off Chelmsford Street.
“I learned about Padma Lakshmi from watching her show ‘Master Chef,'” said manager and chef Xavier Ian Lee. He is the 27-year-old son of Simply Khmer’s owner Sambath Eang Lee (and head chef) and his wife Denise Phon Ban.
But it was the customers that got this restaurant’s attention.
“We brought flavors that he really liked. He liked our vibe,” says Xavier Eang Lee. “And our food is really good.”
During the show, Lakshmi told her family, “Every single one of them told me to come here,” proving that word of mouth has spread far and wide.
The production crew and Lakshmi arrived for filming in March 2022, and the season premiered on Hulu on Friday.
“She filmed in the kitchen with my mom and dad,” said Xavier Eang Lee. “She wanted to make Amok her tray. It’s one of our best sellers.”
The traditional dish is served in steamed banana leaf bowls filled with boneless tilapia fish, coconut milk, lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime and broccoli leaves, all infused with kurung.
Lakshmi built the theme of the show around kurung, the secret sauce that is the basis of many Cambodian recipes. Simply Khmer’s is a blend of galangal, lemongrass, garlic, fingerroot and fresh turmeric.
MP Vanna Howard, the first Khmer woman in the state legislature to represent the 17th Middlesex District, said Cambodian refugee children “stay in Lowell, raise their families in Lowell, and give back to Lowell.”
The restaurant opened in 2007 and survived competition, recession and pandemic. Surviving is something Lowell and many in his Cambodian diaspora are familiar with.
Both the Ban and Lee families escaped the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and sought refuge in Thai refugee camps for years before emigrating to the United States in the 1980s.
Ban’s family was supported by a community in Wichita, Kansas. She was five years old when her family moved to America.
“My dad posted our family’s name on the sponsor board and where we would like to go. We can choose different countries, like the UK, Australia,” Van said. “My father said, ‘I want to go to America.'”
She met Sambas Ian Lee when she came to Lowell for her sister’s wedding. His mother was her wedding planner, and “we were looking at each other when he called him to bring things home,” she said.
Sambath Eang Lee, who learned to cook in a refugee camp, said he loves how food brings people together despite all the trauma of genocide, chaos and uncertainty.
“Our food has a story,” Ban said as her husband cooked what he ordered on the stovetop. “They tell a story about our culture.”
One of those stories was found in Nom Ban Chok, a popular noodle dish in Cambodia, made by Xavier Aan Lee’s grandmother.
“When you go to Cambodia, they walk around and sell this noodle dish on the street,” he said.
The restaurant remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering takeout and dining out. The family also decided to renovate and expand the space during its closure, replacing the linoleum with wooden floors, paint and decorations.A large painting depicting life in Cambodia hangs on the wall.
They also built a deli shop inside their Cambodian boutique-style store, showcasing cultural and seasonal products they sourced and prepared, such as baby mango pickles and garlic mustard.
“You can pickle it while it’s really young,” Xavier Ian Lee said of mustard.
Boutiques sell sarongs, Cambodian history and cookbooks, hot wings, and fish and garlic sauces. And of course, simply Khmer swag.
Cambodian music plays softly on the restaurant’s sound system. The whole atmosphere is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of Cambodia. On a Friday afternoon, the 50-seat dining room had a steady stream of customers either picking up take-out orders or sitting down.
“People are excited to try authentic Cambodian food,” said Xavier Ean Lee.