A Cambodian refugee who fled the Pol Pot regime to the US has formulated a recipe for kroeung (lemongrass paste) that has won two awards in her adopted home.

Channy Laux’s Angkor Lemongrass Paste won the Foodservice Innovation Award at the 65th IFMA Gold & Silver Plate Awards on May 18 in Chicago, and last year it also won the silver award for Outstanding Cooking Sauce in the specialty food section of the 2018 Sofi Awards in New York City.

The Gold & Silver Plate Awards is the longest-running awards programme in the food service industry, with many regarding it as equivalent to the Oscars for the film industry.

Laux’s company, Angkor Cambodian Food, sells Cambodian spices, pastes and sauces, including hot sauces and a newly created tamarind dipping sauce.

“We are proud to represent Cambodian food culture through Angkor Food in this international spotlight. It is our hope that we can leverage on this award to build a stronger Cambodian brand internationally, and in the process we hope to build a strong relationship with Cambodian farmers and food industries,” she says.

Laux – a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in which she endured starvation, horrendous working conditions, sickness and repeated separations from her family – was 13 years old when she arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska as a refugee in June 1979 with her mother and three siblings.

When she first arrived she spent four years with no schooling and not knowing a word of English until she eventually enrolled in Lincoln High School. She persevered in her new land and finally earned a Mathematics and Computer

Science degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MSc in Applied Mathematics from Santa Clara University.

“Prior to starting my food business, I worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for 30 years. I worked on various systems within the US Department of Defence and biotech industries,” says Laux, who is now married to an American man and lives with their daughter and son in California.

Despite living far from home, she stays connected to her country’s cuisine through her mother’s recipes.

Laux’s Angkor Lemongrass Paste won the Foodservice Innovation Award at the 65th IFMA Gold & Silver Plate Awards on May 18 in Chicago, and last year it also won the silver award for Outstanding Cooking Sauce in the specialty food section of the 2018 Sofi Awards in New York City. Photo supplied

Nine years ago, after her mother passed away, she felt emptiness and struggled for motivation with her normal activities. It was at that time that she reconnected with the Khmer cooking she had learned from her mother, the best chef in her family.

“During that time my daughter called from college and asked if I would make her the hot sauce that grandma used to make. That request brought back so many wonderful memories of cooking with my mother. Cooking was one of my mother’s favourite things to do, and she was known for wonderful and authentic Cambodian dishes,” the 57-year-old says.

“I decided then that I would carry on her tradition by sharing her hot sauce with friends and family. I started a big batch of hot sauce, just like the way my mother and I used to make many times before, except this batch was made with many loving memories and a few tear drops.”

After producing the hot sauce, her colleagues asked for more, but this time they insisted on paying for it.

“That’s how we started. So three years ago, I decided to commit 100 per cent of my time on the business,” she says.

The goal of her business is to provide quality ingredients that are essential to Khmer cooking, alongside simple-to-follow recipes Laux learned from her mother.

“I learned how to cook Cambodian food from working in the kitchen with my mother, and I learned how to make canned food from my mother-in-law. What I learned from my two mothers inspired me to create the shelf-stable Cambodian products. My experience in the biotech industry allowed me the opportunity to work in the US’ Food and Drug Administration, giving me the confidence in developing shelf-stable Cambodian products,” says Laux, who is also the author of book Short Hair Detention detailing her personal memoir of surviving the Cambodian genocide.

She said that she imports spices from Cambodia, such as Kampot peppercorns, but all of her manufactured products are made in the US. “We are hoping to source ingredients from Cambodia in the near future,” she adds.

Her lemongrass paste – a mix of lemongrass, garlic, onion, chilli, fish sauce, sugar, water, sea salt, canola oil, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice concentrate – is a staple in many Cambodian dishes, but she says it can also be used as a seasoning in Western food.

“I have some fusion dishes, but mostly Khmer recipes, with options to substitute ingredients for those chefs who may not have access to the tropical produces and herbs. One of my most popular recipes is chakreung sach moan [stir-fried chicken with lemongrass paste],” she says.

Laux says that surprisingly most of her customers are American, with only “some Asian, and a few Cambodians”. She adds that it took a “long time to get any Cambodian customers. Cambodian customers are very critical of the Cambodian food business because we are compared against mum’s cooking.”

Laux does many pop-ups, cooking classes, private parties and cooks at events, but she says it’s a constant struggle to overcome the more established Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.

“In America, there are reasons why Cambodian food is not as popular as Thai or Vietnamese food. Importantly, most Cambodians who came to America were genocide survivors, we lost everything. All of us rebuilt our lives with a minimum wage, this made it almost impossible to start a business,” says Laux, who is yet to return to Cambodia in 40 years.

On May 28, the US Embassy to Cambodia’s Facebook page wrote a brief biography about Laux, also congratulating her on her cooking talents.

“It’s about introducing people to new flavours and ingredients, like prahok, a fermented fish that we use like salt. Americans love it,” Laux was quoted as telling the embassy.

Angkor Cambodian Food products can be purchased via their website (www.AngkorFood.com) and they can be contacted via Facebook (@Angkorfood). Their products can also be purchased through Amazon, Kroger and other specialty online food stores.