UPDATE [NOV. 15]: Due to permitting issues, the Taste of Cambodia Town event has been rescheduled for sometime in January.
The façade of the historic Craftsman-style house in the heart of Long Beach’s Cambodian Town is nearly covered by greenery. Most of what comes out of the soil surrounding the 3-year-old MAYE Center is edible and sold during a weekly pop-up farmers’ market in the driveway. But the food that’s grown here isn’t just nourishment for the body.
For the Cambodian immigrants who have made this community center into a second home, the process of working with the earth as a way to work through trauma is also nourishment for the soul. “Gardening is a form of healing. It’s also a form of exercise,” says MAYE Center founder Laura Som. “For us, spirituality is connected with the garden.”
Som grew up in a refugee camp and came to the U.S. in 1992. A biochemistry major in college, she established the center as a way to help others like her deal with the mental and physical damage that lingered after the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered 2 million of its own people in the late 1970s. Many who survived the genocide landed in Long Beach, which is now home to the largest population of Cambodians in the country.
Through cooking classes, therapy sessions, health seminars and more, MAYE—an acronym for meditation, agriculture, yoga and education—has become a safe place where Khmer is the default language and the cure for PTSD is striving toward harmony and wholesomeness.
The center’s Healing Garden is both a metaphorical and literal foundation for those efforts. “Soil struggles to grow things, just like people struggle to grow in new lands. By tending to something and making it grow, it’s a process of constant healing,” Som says. “Everyone’s right to mother earth is the same, no matter your skin color or where you come from. Realizing that this is your right, it changes you.”
Families, neighbors and friends of the center have enjoyed the physical output of the garden for years. But now Som aims to get the produce—including kaffir limes, lemongrass stalks, avocados and medicinal herbs—into the hands of restaurants and chefs, who, Som says, can spread the center’s message of self-healing and empowerment to the greater community.
Taste of Cambodian Town, happening this Saturday in the MAYE Center’s driveway, as well as in the driveway of the United Cambodian Community of Long Beach (whose offices are across the street), is a small step toward that goal. The event is less like the similarly named Taste of Downtown—for which a dozen local restaurants pay to set up steam trays in a parking lot as a promotional effort—and more an intimate introduction to Cambodian culture, history and activism through the culinary arts. Four Long Beach chefs who are part of a crew of young Khmer food-industry professionals called Chefs Off the Boat—Federal Bar executive chef Visoth Tarak Ouk, Maurice Yim of Le Awe Catering Co., Andy Eap of Big Juicy’s Wings and Cajun-loving Cambodian-sauce maker Chad Phuong—will be making fusion bites using ingredients grown in the Healing Garden.
Proceeds from Taste of Cambodian Town will benefit both the MAYE Center and United Cambodian Community.
“If you eat a dish [at the event] and ask where it comes from, that would be a deeper question that goes so far back that it becomes about life itself. The whole point of the genocide was to try to destroy life, but life can’t be destroyed,” Som says. “Our resiliency is in the food that’s grown. So when you ask what’s the story behind the ingredients being used, it’s the story of Cambodians in Long Beach.”
Taste of Cambodian Town at United Cambodian Community of Long Beach, 2201 E. Anahiem St., Long Beach; also at the MAYE Center, 2153 E. Anahiem St., Long Beach. Sat., 4-8 p.m. Free admission; food costs extra.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.