Tina Nop prepares a recipe at Fork Food Lab in Portland. Her new food truck will offer traditional Cambodian food from family recipes. Courtesy / Fork Food Lab

WESTBROOK — Resident Tina Nop hopes her new food truck will give Mainers a taste of what she felt growing up: comfort and warmth through traditional Cambodian cooking.

Nop, 40, is a first-generation American. Born in California, she moved to Maine at 16. A daughter of a Cambodian refugee, her memories of her early years are of the meals she and her family shared with other families of Cambodian refugees.

Tina Nop says traditional, shared meals helped her family and others deal with trauma. Courtesy / Fork Food Lab

Collectively recovering from trauma related to the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s and the sadness of leaving their country behind, the shared traditional meals were a source of happiness to those families, she said.

Those families became her new, larger family, she said.

“Growing up I didn’t have aunts or uncles, so the community we were in were people that … became aunts and uncles,” Nop said. “It was rough because you know that your stepfather, mom, all of our friends in the circle came from all this trauma.

“That’s hard to navigate as a kid – that they are suffering but they are navigating a new life to make for you. It wasn’t easy growing up, but I found pockets of joy. They always involved food,” she said.

Nop has received a $4,300 scholarship from Portland-based Fork Food Labs, which is meant to help people of color start a food business in Maine. She will use the money for a food truck business that will serve Cambodian dishes from family recipes.

“Tina is passionate, professional, and ready to take the next steps toward a future that belongs to her,” Fork’s Director of Member Services Corinne Tompkins said. “She was the obvious choice.”

Nop plans to call the truck “Sok Sabai.” In Cambodian, sok means peace and sabai means happiness, but bai by itself means rice.

“It really is a perfect name,” Nop said.

“I won’t hold back on the fermented fish. I want a Cambodian steak sauce, which when translated means watered fish paste. It gives a good salty taste. My mom says chhgnaoy which means ‘stinks so good.’ Every Cambodian person knows that phrase,” she said.

She also plans to serve dishes involving curries and noodles, along with stews and dips. Some of the Cambodian cuisine will be familiar to customers because it is similar to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, she said, though less spicy and more aromatic. Because there a number of Asian markets in the area, the ingredients easy to find.

At a young age, Nop was cooking for her four other younger siblings when her mother and stepfather, a Vietnamese democracy fighter against the North Vietnamese, were at work. She also was her parents’ interpreter, starting at about age 9 or 10, she said. She got her first job in a kitchen at 17. 

It is important to Nop to hold “honor and preserve” her Cambodian culture. About 2 million Cambodians died in the genocide from 1975-1979.

“The role that food played in my life, it helped dull that trauma my family went through,” Nop said. “It gave them something to smile about. When you have a full belly it’s hard to be upset you know? You had a joyous time. There is still singing and dancing despite all this pain.”

Nop hopes she can share that warmth with Mainers through her food truck, which she now owns but is working to set up into a full kitchen.

“I hope that I give people the feeling that I felt growing up. You are going to know that it comes from hands that want you to have the food. All of these recipes are from my mom and aunt, and all that love that went into that. I want customers to know they have room at my table,” Nop said.

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