The city’s Cambodian food scene is practically nonexistent (outside of the 23514967 Num Pang sandwich shops, said with love because that place is my heaven), but apparently Philadelphia has quite the community. Every April, Cambodians in Philly celebrate the three-day Cambodian New Year, and on weekends they sell skewers at parks or in front of their homes. When my friend invited me down to enjoy the festivities, I jumped at—or rather, took a bus to—the opportunity.
This year’s Cambodian New Year was April 13-15. I went that weekend, and it turns out trying to find these tents was a scavenger hunt. The “street vendors” constantly move locations, whether it’s to a park like Dickinson Square or near the golden Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, where we hunted them down. It’s very small-scale, community-based and casual, not an organized event whatsoever. Your best bet is calling some of Philly’s Cambodian restaurants and asking for the location.
My imagination conjured up a modest one or two tents, but it looked more like a block party. There was a woman singing Cambodian songs while women dressed in traditional sampots, from ornate to casual, were dancing. Friends, families and neighbors sat splayed across porches and on foldable chairs. Little kids were blowing bubbles. People were also entering the temple to pray.
Some tents sell food, while others are for those in the community and their food can’t be purchased. It’s tricky, but don’t offend anyone by asking to buy what they’re making. If you see people holding money, you should be in the clear.
The bok l’hong (Khmer green papaya salad) was very spicy and more savory than Thai papaya salads. Unripe shredded papaya and sliced cherry tomatoes are seasoned with a paste made of chili peppers and dried shrimp, then mixed with lime juice and fish sauce. The flavor was addictive, but I could only get a few bites in before my internal spicy-tolerance-meter broke.
The Cambodian skewers were marinated with a sweet and savory glaze. We bought them from two different tents. One beef skewer was tender and juicy, while another one was tougher, but both were flavorful. The chicken, which comes as a whole wing, was perfectly cooked.
They also sold sausages, chicken hearts, gizzards and the highlight: stuffed chicken wings.
The stuffed chicken wing is also well-marinated so the skin is nice and flavorful. The chicken itself is tender, but the fun surprise is that it’s stuffed with mushroom bits, snow fungus (also known as white wood ear), cabbage, chopped up rice noodles and green onion. Even after I bit into the wing, the stuffing held together instead of spilling out as I’d anticipated.
There was also a stand selling shaved ice with syrup, and I got mine with all the fixings: basil seeds, jellies, red beans, topped with sweet syrup and condensed milk. It was sweet and refreshing on a hot day.
If you miss the Cambodian New Year celebration, don’t worry, there are several quality Cambodian restaurants around like Khmer Kitchen. But if you can make a weekend trip before April’s over, it’s worth checking out.
Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple*
2400 S 6th Street (map)
Philadelphia, PA 19148
*The festivities move locations. Call Cambodian restaurants to double check.