Sarom Sieng did not want her daughter trapped in the church kitchen, cooking curry and egg rolls her whole life.
“She wanted me to be happy and fulfill my dream and not be stuck trying to make a living cooking Cambodian food,” says Mona Sang. “She never said, ‘Hey, I need you to help me, come back in the kitchen.’ She said, ‘Go do this because if you stay with me we’re not gonna get big.’”
That was eight years ago when Sang, who’s now 39, started working in the kitchen at a gyros joint, followed by half a dozen years at Lettuce Entertain You’s Ivy Room event space.
But now, just as so many chefs have in the last year, Sang is cooking with her mom again, back in the kitchen at Living Water Community Church in Rogers Park.
That’s where they’ve launched Mona Bella Catering, a union of the Khmer cooking skills that the mother brought from Cambodia and the technical skills the daughter brought from the trenches of a major catering operation.
Sieng owned a farm back in Cambodia and a market stall where she and her husband sold food and clothing. But the Khmer Rouge put an end to that. Sieng lost her husband and two sons before fleeing to a series of Thai refugee camps with her remaining three children. Mona Sang was born in one of them, but while the family waited for a sponsorship with the help of an aunt in Chicago, they never stayed in one space for very long.
“We had to travel all the time because there were bombs being dropped on us,” Sieng says. “We were being hunted by the Khmer Rouge, so there was no time that we could safely stay in one spot.”
After a brief stop in a two-bedroom New York City apartment that they shared with another family, they finally found a safe spot here, where they joined the Mennonite Living Water Community Church, which sponsored their immigration.
“When we first came to the United States, the government would give us a box of food; the peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese, the powdered milk,” says Sang. “My mom didn’t know how to read or speak any type of English, so we didn’t know how to cook any of that. She would take side jobs cleaning people’s houses so she can get the money and go to the Asian markets in Chinatown or Argyle and buy the stuff that she knows. And then cook Cambodian food for us.”
Sieng made money sewing hospital gowns but eventually started cooking meals for other Cambodian families, and then later for baptisms, weddings, and other church events. Sang grew up working at her mother’s side, helping to cook huge trays of her signature chicken curry, egg rolls, Chinese sausage fried rice, and the sweet and sour beef soup somlar ma’chu kroeung.
Sang didn’t consider cooking professionally herself until she landed a cashier job at a gyros joint with an open kitchen and started watching the cooks at work. “I would start taking notes,” she says. “I wanted to see them peeling the potatoes or carrots, and how they were doing things different from how my mom taught me. One day I asked the boss, ‘Hey, do you guys need help in the kitchen?’ I just took off from there.”
Sang worked on the line for two years before she got hired at the Ivy Room, where her western culinary education was cemented. “It was huge,” she says. “We had weddings and parties every day. They taught me everything I would have learned if I’d gone to culinary school. It was great, but the one thing I sort of regret is that I sort of left my mom behind.”
The other great thing was that it was flexible enough for her to take care of her three kids after school. But when the parties stopped last March, she needed to find work that would allow her to keep an eye on them as they learned online.
To compound matters, Sieng was thinking of retiring from her own catering business when the pandemic dried it up, which lent an urgency to the guilt that Sang felt. “I’m talking to her and she’s like, ‘You know, I’m getting older. It’s gonna be sad that I won’t be able to pass this catering on to you so that you can show people our food, our culture.’ So I thought maybe I could continue. I started thinking about things that I learned from Lettuce and how to infuse it with Cambodian cuisine.”
Beginning in March she started cooking with her mom every day, building a lengthy catering menu full of classic Khmer dishes such as prahok ktiss, a ground pork dip seasoned with fermented mudfish and the herbal spice paste kroeung, with lemongrass, garlic, galangal, turmeric, and makrut lime leaf; or chha trop dott, grilled eggplant stuffed with ground pork and topped with pickled Fresno chilis. Sieng’s egg rolls were on the menu too, but Sang also created a few dishes merging Khmer and western culinary traditions, like kroeng and miso-braised short ribs served with sweet potato puree; or her mom’s chicken curry paired with grilled pesto garlic bread.
She started posting these dishes to Instagram (@monabellacatering) in November, launching a different weekly meal delivery menu each Monday, with the ultimate aim of building a thriving catering business when people start gathering for parties again.
It’s a means to another end. “My children are Cambodian,” says Sang. “And they need to know our culture. I don’t want my mom to think our culture is gonna die here in Chicago.”
Apart from Ethan’s Lim’s wonderful Hermosa, Mona Bella Catering is the only other fully Khmer food operation in town. And it’s pretty wonderful too. As Sang and Sieng work on each menu, they’re testing, tasting, and previewing dishes on Instagram: heaping bowls of salaw machu kroeung, a sweet-and-sour short rib and ong choy soup redolent of lemongrass and makrut lime leaf; or twako, chubby chili and lemongrass sausages with a fermented tang that takes about a week to develop.
Nam ban chok is an impressive feast that arrives in three parts, including a generous tangle of rice noodles, a deli container of thick coconut fish soup, and a garden of fresh raw vegetables for garnishing. Boned out chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and bean thread noodles are the chicken nuggets no mortal can refuse. There’s usually a pair of desserts, such as num ansom chek, sticky baby-banana-stuffed coconut rice steamed in banana leaf; or similarly num kom, stuffed with sweet yellow mung beans.
Though it’s only been a few months, Sang’s repertoire is formidable. And in addition to the rigorously traditional food her mom taught her to cook, she’s continuing to roll out a few Khmer-western mashups, like a lemongrass burger topped with crispy pork belly, spicy mayo, and mango salad; and a twako sub, with peanut sauce and pickled red onion.
I’ve been ordering prodigiously from Instagram chefs like Sang and her mom since March, and there’s another thing that stands out about them and their food: they’re among the most generous. I’ve ordered for two from them twice, and the leftovers have sustained us (and some neighbors) for a week each time.
I marveled at this one evening as Sang unloaded the entire contents of an insulated Cambro container at my doorstep.
“Well,” she says. “We are caterers. We want people to have leftovers and share with their family and friends.” v