By Sharan Gill
In a Cambodian Buddhist temple called Watt Munisotaram, Sothy Minh sold thin noodles tossed with “kroeung,” a blend of herbs and spices such as lemon grass, turmeric, and red chilies, for years. She loved cooking, but the idea of maintaining a wait staff and a large restaurant space seemed unwieldy. Her passion for sharing Cambodian food found an eventual home in an ideal grab-and-go setting: Sabbai Cuisine.
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Occupying an indoor stall at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, Minh serves Cambodian food as well as Thai dishes. Minh spent time as a young woman at a Thai refugee camp during the communist Khmer Rouge-era. After two of her brothers and her father passed away, she earned spare money for her mother and five remaining siblings by selling cigarettes in the camp. This experience developed her business acumen and exposed her to Thai cuisine that she added to Sabbai’s menu to attract patrons.
“When we first applied, management was like you might want to put Thai in there because the foods are kind of similar and a lot of people know what Thai food is,” said Ashley Minh, Sothy’s daughter and manager of Sabbai. “Thank god they told us because everyone knows Pad Thai so now we’re slowly getting to introduce more and more Cambodian foods.”
Sabbai’s traditional ingredient choices highlight their commitment to Cambodian flavors, in spite of a multi-ethnic menu.
“The way this restaurant is, the essence of Cambodian food is lost a little,” Ashley Minh said. “But at the same time we have it in there because we use all of the [native] ingredients so galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves.”
Family involvement has been integral to Sabbai since the restaurant’s beginning. While Ashley Minh serves as manager and occasionally cooks, her sister works several shifts and her father, a full-time job technician, works at Sabbai on the weekends.
“I go to the [University of Minnesota] and when I’m not at school I’ll either be here or doing paperwork at home because I help with the taxes, so [Sabbai] is basically my full-time job,” said Ashley Minh. “…And then I would go to school with a full course load.”
None of their recipes are written down. Sothy learned them as a little girl. She was one of eight siblings and the daughter of a single mother, who worked two jobs. She passed on the culinary tradition to her family, who all try to stay true to their Cambodian heritage. An eventual goal would be summer trips to expand the traditional Cambodian aspects of their menu. According to Sothy Minh, 75% of customers are regulars, something that the restaurant takes pride in.
“I love the customers that keep coming back and building a relationship with them. We have one customer, who just needs to call and say “Hey. It’s Jonathan” and we say, “Okay. What time will you be here?” Ashley Minh said. “For us especially it’s not about attracting new customers with advertising, it’s about maintaining relationships with current customers.”