When Mona Sang immigrated to the United States from Cambodia as a toddler in the early 1980s, the U.S. government supplied her family with box after box of American packaged goods. Instant noodles, powdered milk — all with English-language instructions printed on the cardboard containers. Survivors of the Cambodian genocide, Sang, her siblings, and mother Sarom Sieng had no idea what to do with these products.
“[My mom] was cooking a lot, but we didn’t know how to eat American food,” says Sang, now 39. “When people would give us macaroni and cheese in a box, we wouldn’t know how to make it.”
With four children to feed, Sang’s mother was undaunted. Before the Cambodian genocide, Sieng and her husband were farmers with a little restaurant where they cooked their own produce. Cooking was always a source of joy and pride for her, her daughter says. Decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, cooking has proven a family savior, helping mother and daughter survive layers of tragedy. The experience has manifested as a restaurant, Khmai Fine Dining in Rogers Park. The name is an amalgam of “Khmer,” the language and ethnicity of native Cambodians, and “me,” the Khmer word for mother — a clear message from Sang about the essential role of her own mother in her presentation of traditional Cambodian cuisine.
Led by Pol Pot, the autocratic and totalitarian regime of the Khmer Rouge — an extremist political group centered around an ideology that melded aspects of communism and race-based nationalism — lasted from 1975 to 1979. Over the course of those four years, the Khmer Rouge murdered between 1.5 and 2 million people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Famously depicted in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge banned the mere existence of more than 20 of the country’s ethnic groups, including Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, while also targeting religious minorities, political and military opponents, academics, business leaders, journalists, doctors, and lawyers. Neither of Sang’s parents had a formal education, but the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror had an indiscriminate effect — their entire community was ransacked; soldiers treated residents not as people, but merely property to abuse and enslave.
“What Pol Pot did was get rid of anyone who was smart or fought for themselves,” says Sang. “[The Khmer Rouge] came to our house and brought everyone out into a field. They said, ‘If you know how to read or write, or if you’re a doctor, raise your hand and we’ll put you in a different group.’”
Sang’s mother knew four languages, picking the words up while interacting with customers. Still, Sieng kept her hands lowered, listening to her instincts. Troops proceeded to take the people who raised their hands and “put blue bags over their heads.” They “burned them, tortured them, killed them.” Though she avoided that fate, Sieng didn’t fully escape harm.
“My mom says she was tortured,” Sang says. “A lot of people don’t know about that.”
Sieng says her husband was executed by the Khmer Rouge as the family fled to a series of Thai refugee camps. Along the way, two of her sons died. Sang was born in one of the camps. “We were being hunted so we had to hide,” says Sang, who describes her mother crawling on the floor with her children on her back to stay out of sight. “She thought she was going to die because of bombs and land mines. She saw people hanging from trees, she stepped on hundreds of skeletons, she was bitten by a snake.”
Eventually, Sieng and her children were able to secure passage to the United States, first settling in New York and then relocating to Chicago. There are about 339,000 Cambodians living in America, according to the Pew Research Center. LA has the largest population in America with 41,000. Chicago is home to more than 3,000 Cambodians and Cambodian Americans, according to the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Sieng scouted Asian markets in Chinatown on the South Side and Edgewater on the North Side to source ingredients that her family was familiar with. Over time, she began cooking for other families in the Cambodian community, and expanded into catering events at Living Water Community Church in Rogers Park. Uptown and Albany Park have been the traditional centers of the Cambodian community in Chicago. Many arrived in the late ’70s and early ’80s as refugees, just like Sieng and her family.
In the kitchen, Sang was perpetually at her mother’s side, absorbing techniques and flavor profiles as she helped her mother work. Her passion for food and cooking was apparent, but she wanted to learn at the elbow of professional chefs and in 2015 began working for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s largest restaurant group. She spent the next six years cooking at its Ivy Room event space.
Sang’s family suffered tragedy again in 2018, when one of Sang’s brothers died unexpectedly in his sleep. Her mother discovered him the next morning, Sang says, and that image haunted Sieng. She fell into a frozen emotional state that her daughter likens to a coma. “We fought so hard to get away from the genocide and come to freedom, just for him to die here in a free country,” Sang says. “My mom still has nightmares from the Khmer Rouge and she started screaming in her sleep.”
During the pandemic, the family once again faced challenges. Lettuce Entertain You furloughed Sang at the Ivy Room in spring 2021 and Sieng had to shut down the church’s catering operation. Sang and her family grappled for ways to help her mother cope with her depression. After many discussions around the kitchen table, they found the answer: cooking. “We started to cook together like we did when I was little,” says Sang. “Slowly, it brought her out and she started to smile again.”
As part of their journey toward healing, Sang, casually at first, began posting photos of her and her mother’s dishes to social media. She was surprised at the number of positive responses and questions her posts provoked, and she began to think more seriously about sharing her native cuisine with Chicago. Once mask-wearing and pandemic mitigations became a norm, Sang and Sieng returned to the church kitchen and formalized operations by launching Mona Bella Catering, cooking dishes like nam banh chok — rice noodles, coconut fish soup, and raw vegetables, packaged for transport in a trio of deli containers — and num ansom chek, a dessert of sweet glutinous rice, banana, and coconut, all steamed together in a banana leaf.
Public interest built with media coverage in 2021, and Lettuce Entertain You even offered Sang her old job. But that paled in comparison to what Sang observed: Her mother had rediscovered the love of cooking Cambodian food. “I thought I might have lost her,” Sang says. “Cooking brought her back to life.”
Chicago is home to Kasama, the world’s only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant. Parachute’s Korean American fare has also earned international attention. Michelin loves upscale Japanese restaurants in Chicago and elsewhere. But Asia’s a big continent and aside from Hermosa, few Chicago restaurants highlight Cambodian cuisine. It’s a scenario that puts Sang in the position of both chef and educator, guiding diners and staff who may assume that Khmer food is simply a variant on that of neighbors in Vietnam or Thailand. To fans, however, Cambodian dishes distinguish themselves with flavors that are rich, deep, and concentrated, seen in staples like kreung, a spice blend that includes makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, turmeric, and galangal.
To Sang, the key is to understand the vital role of prahok, a potent paste of salted and fermented fish used as a seasoning and condiment in Cambodian cooking. “It’s pungent, umami, spicy, salty,” says Sang. “Other Southeast Asian countries don’t use it, and if you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t taste right.”
Sang hasn’t heard every detail of Sieng’s experience during the genocide, but the extensive trauma her mother endured remains vivid to this day. “I don’t know the whole story, but she tells it little by little when she’s cooking,” Sang says. “I think there’s a lot of other people out there who have been through the same thing, but their story has never been told.”
Now nearly 80, Sieng spends her days either with her 13 grandchildren, or prepping for service at Khmai. Sang hopes to eventually develop a kind of miniature museum of Cambodian culture with decorative art and photographs in the restaurant. She is envious of the Cambodian parades and parties in Long Beach, California, seen by many as the heart of the American Cambodian community, and says she’d like to bring similar events to Chicago — the cavernous restaurant even has an elevated stage up in front to host such functions.
In selecting the name for Khmai, Sang isn’t just sending a message to diners. She’s also communicating with her mother, reframing the restaurant as a love letter. “I’m basically saying that I did it all for her, to make sure she survived because she fought so hard to get to America,” Sang says. “She’s a single mom who never spoke [English], who lost everything. I want to say, I’m doing this for you. This is meant for you because you want Chicago and everyone to know who we are.”