Soben Pin inspects each ingredient closely. She pokes at packaged chicken breasts and rifles through bunches of Thai basil and fresh mint in the cramped aisles of the Hong Kong Supermarket in Lowell, Massachusetts. She chooses smooth, plump, bright-green limes, passing over those of a deeper hue.
“This one got exposed to the sun and this didn't,” she explains, comparing two.
After she hunts down her preferred brand of fish sauce—a feat given this store's selection—Soben insists we stop at an American grocery store, so she can buy ground pork there.
Shopping can take a while when you're this circumspect.
But back at Soben's kitchen, in a towering brick cotton mill-turned-apartment complex, the process of making dinner is swift. Soben, who cooked for her father nearly every day of her pre-college adolescence, has been gregarious all day. As she starts to cook, she grows quiet.
“Mommy needs to concentrate right now,” she tells her 6-year-old son, Aiden, who's warbling in the living room.
Soben came to the U.S. from southern Vietnam—which claimed a large Cambodian population—when she was 14. After college, she met her husband and business partner, Roger, a longtime Cambodian journalist and publisher. Together they run a newspaper, the KhmerPost USA, in Lowell, the second-largest hub of Cambodians in the U.S. Our meal on this snowy Saturday—a simple soup and an omelet—reflects Soben's bifurcated background: One dish is Vietnamese, the other Cambodian.
I've researched the Cambodian pork omelet in advance—it's sweet and salty, thanks to white sugar and soy sauce. The recipes I've seen resemble a well-browned American omelet, folded over on its filling, sprinkled with herbs. It overflows with ground pork and is often served with pickled vegetables (as are many Khmer dishes).
But Soben takes the dish in a different direction. To my surprise, she cracks three eggs over top of ground pork seasoned with salt, sugar and white pepper. She uses a plastic spatula to break up the yolks and stir the ingredients together. She pours fish sauce into a large serving spoon and adds it. She cooks in sharp contrast to how she shops: loose, unfussy and fast.
She pours the egg mixture into a skillet, smooths the top, then cranks the heat on her electric range. Gradually it begins to sizzle in the oil. She puts a lid on the pan and waits. When she suspects the bottom is golden brown, she removes the lid and, with her spatula, cuts the omelet into quarters. “One thing I can't do is flip it like a chef,” she says, turning and repositioning the quarters in the pan.
Just as the omelet finishes cooking, the rice cooker beeps. Dinner is served. The omelet is unlike any I've eaten before, with faint sweetness from the sugar and the onion. The fish sauce bolsters the pork's meatiness, but it also adds its distinct salty-savoriness to the omelet.
Back at Milk Street, we took inspiration from Soben's sidestep. So rather than flip our Cambodian pork omelet, we let the edges set in a skillet, then slipped it in the oven to finish cooking, much like a frittata. Pickled radishes and cucumbers—ready in 30 minutes, about the same time as the omelet takes—rounded out our take on a no-fuss family dinner.