Khmer Food and Culture Thrive in the Park (Philadelphia, USA)

14,278 kilometers/8,872 miles from Phnom Penh

If there's one thing I really love, it's finding where the Cambodians are.

As soon as we book travel to a new location the Googling begins. When I planned to visit my youngest sister in Philadelphia in late 2022 I knew that I had to visit the Southeast Asian Market in FDR park. We made a quick visit on a rainy day when there were only a few vendors. It is still intriguing enough that when I visited again this July, my sister wanted to go again. This time we brought her husband, too. The weather was perfect, the parking was exactly where the website suggested, every vendor space seemed occupied. Let the eating begin.

The market was once faced with opposition.

It started in the 80s with one Lao couple making chicken wings and papaya salad in FDR park. Soon more Lao and Cambodian refugees joined in with their own specialties. They faced disputes with law enforcement and locals. Fast forward to today and you'll hear it called a jewel, a must-visit, and even one of the best markets in the U.S.

More immigrants and second generation Americans represent their cultures now, too. Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese food also make appearances. There are older aunties and uncles cooking, as well as younger generations fusing their traditions with new points of view.

Num kong - chewy Cambodian doughnuts topped with a crisp sesame caramel

When I visited in July, I was eager to introduce my sister and brother-in-law to Khmer flavours.

As we walked past each vendor, I listened for Khmer and looked for familiar sights. Our first stop was for sugarcane juice from a Vietnamese vendor. Then I spotted num krouk, savoury cakes of rice flour, coconut milk, water, and spring onion. They are served with a sweet-sour dipping sauce. I practiced my Khmer by thanking the uncle who handed me change. He kindly humored me by asking questions in Khmer, too. We had a short conversation about where I live now, where I'm from, and why I've learned to love Cambodian food. Before leaving their table to look for more food, I bought num jajul, a coconutty doughnut, as well.

We carried on down a long row of food and drinks. Along the way we picked up num kong, Cambodian mochi-like doughnuts with sesame caramel. There were also coconut milk jellies, durian sticky rice, and durian shakes. Several meat skewers and sausages found their way to us, too.

If I'm honest, not everything was a hit. Some things were too greasy, slightly too old, or the wrong texture. One sausage wasn't cooked quite enough for my liking. 75% of what we got, however, was perfect or really good. 100% would visit again to try new things.

Cambodian coconut jellies - they're creamy, bouncy, and a great summer snack

It's not just snacks and treats.

The market also features vendors selling fresh veggies and fruits, cultural clothing and gifts, canned dips, and pickled fruits. It's really like stepping out of Philadelphia and into Cambodia. Seeing people from all background visiting the market, and staying to have picnics with what they find there, is heart-warming. The first refugees who made FDR park their little space to share home probably didn't imagine it.

Now, the vendors have support from the city, park, and their communities. They have regular trading seasons. They have regular customers and online and print media regularly feature them in articles.

Durian sticky rice from a Cambodian vendor at the market

This is why I love to seek out pockets of Khmer culture wherever we are.

Elders persisted, now the younger generation seeks out new ways to preserve and celebrate that. It's fascinating and special. It is worth learning from and about. And if you're lucky enough, there will be plenty of food, too.

Trading times change according to the seasons, and the market doesn't run on certain days or in winter. Knowing where to park is key. Stay informed on the details before you visit by visiting the market's website:

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