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A happy Khmer New Year with Po's Cambodian Street Food

Sipping coconut water and experiencing the Maha Sangkran Festival

A procession of drummers and dancers in traditional dress at the Khmer New Year festival
A procession of drummers and dancers in traditional dress at the Khmer New Year festival

I can’t explain exactly what led me to attend the Maha Sangkran Festival the third weekend of April. Better known around these parts as the Cambodian New Year, or Khmer New Year, the two day party went down on the grassy green fields at Colina Del Sol Park in City Heights, under brilliant blue skies. I suppose I was looking for something to do outside, in the beautiful weather. And perhaps a bit hungry.

The event’s organized annually by the Khmer American Mutual Association of San Diego to promote its mission to connect older and younger generations of Cambodian-Americans, with the hope to share and preserve Khmer culture. I should point out I know little about this culture and had to learn, for example, that Maha Sangkran celebrates the lunar new year, a time in Cambodia that falls around the time farmers harvest, just before the wet monsoon season begins.

Cambodian beef and chicken skewers (bag of sticky rice not pictured)

Spending an afternoon sitting in the grass, witnessing a program of Cambodian music and dance would only teach me so much, but the music was enchanting, and the embroidered silk traditional dress lovely. Mostly, it was fun to be in a friendly, celebratory atmosphere that my jaded heart didn’t understand well enough to eye-roll. And per usual my favorite part involved eating.

Food vendors lined the back row of the festival, including a sno-cone stand and a couple booths nominally serving Thai and Laotian cuisine. Several stands were selling straight from the shell coconut water, so I grabbed one and bided my time sipping its sweet juice through a wide-mouthed straw while I waited for my chicken and beef skewers.

Po's, the most popular food vendor of the festival

Amid a dozen or so options, the largest crowd by far gathered around Po’s Cambodian Street Food, a pop-up vendor with a couple of farmers market gigs under its belt. As the street food moniker suggests, it serves mostly serves finger foods such as wings and skewers, though all the kids gravitated to the mango sticky rice with ice cream. Po himself seemed overwhelmed by the response, but he and his team kept up the hustle, grilling large quantities of chicken and beef, even as they ran out of minor luxuries, like napkins. I’m not sure they ever had utensils; my order came with a side of sticky rice, served in a Ziploc bag.

That would be the three sticks combo, for seven bucks. I tried it with two chicken skewers, one beef. Both were heavily influenced by lemongrass. The chicken had some yellow curry action to it, while the tenderized beef skewer went in a spicier direction I couldn’t quite pin down. It reminded me a bit of the flavor of seasoned beef jerky, except instead of leathery chew, there was warm and delicate grilled meat. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

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A procession of drummers and dancers in traditional dress at the Khmer New Year festival
A procession of drummers and dancers in traditional dress at the Khmer New Year festival

I can’t explain exactly what led me to attend the Maha Sangkran Festival the third weekend of April. Better known around these parts as the Cambodian New Year, or Khmer New Year, the two day party went down on the grassy green fields at Colina Del Sol Park in City Heights, under brilliant blue skies. I suppose I was looking for something to do outside, in the beautiful weather. And perhaps a bit hungry.

The event’s organized annually by the Khmer American Mutual Association of San Diego to promote its mission to connect older and younger generations of Cambodian-Americans, with the hope to share and preserve Khmer culture. I should point out I know little about this culture and had to learn, for example, that Maha Sangkran celebrates the lunar new year, a time in Cambodia that falls around the time farmers harvest, just before the wet monsoon season begins.

Cambodian beef and chicken skewers (bag of sticky rice not pictured)

Spending an afternoon sitting in the grass, witnessing a program of Cambodian music and dance would only teach me so much, but the music was enchanting, and the embroidered silk traditional dress lovely. Mostly, it was fun to be in a friendly, celebratory atmosphere that my jaded heart didn’t understand well enough to eye-roll. And per usual my favorite part involved eating.

Food vendors lined the back row of the festival, including a sno-cone stand and a couple booths nominally serving Thai and Laotian cuisine. Several stands were selling straight from the shell coconut water, so I grabbed one and bided my time sipping its sweet juice through a wide-mouthed straw while I waited for my chicken and beef skewers.

Po's, the most popular food vendor of the festival

Amid a dozen or so options, the largest crowd by far gathered around Po’s Cambodian Street Food, a pop-up vendor with a couple of farmers market gigs under its belt. As the street food moniker suggests, it serves mostly serves finger foods such as wings and skewers, though all the kids gravitated to the mango sticky rice with ice cream. Po himself seemed overwhelmed by the response, but he and his team kept up the hustle, grilling large quantities of chicken and beef, even as they ran out of minor luxuries, like napkins. I’m not sure they ever had utensils; my order came with a side of sticky rice, served in a Ziploc bag.

That would be the three sticks combo, for seven bucks. I tried it with two chicken skewers, one beef. Both were heavily influenced by lemongrass. The chicken had some yellow curry action to it, while the tenderized beef skewer went in a spicier direction I couldn’t quite pin down. It reminded me a bit of the flavor of seasoned beef jerky, except instead of leathery chew, there was warm and delicate grilled meat. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

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Comments
1

Unfortunately, I was late and could not listen and watch all the performances at the Khmer New Year festival. But I instinctively chose Po Cambodian Street Food - the popular seller around whom the biggest crowd had gathered. My companion and I ordered two sticks of kebabs: chicken and beef. I expected a lot of spices, but I was pleasantly surprised that the taste was mildly sharp and harmonious. The chicken, as it should be, was soft and pleasant, the beef was more sharp and dry to the point of permissible. If you drink all this coconut drink, the overall impression is not bad. As a festival of Asian street food, I think this event was a success.

April 29, 2019

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