Nyum Bai Puts Banana Blossoms into a Salad
Gently crunchy and tasting nothing like bananas, banana-blossom salads are typically served augmented by soup and rice as a whole meal.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Bright, fresh, and frank while letting you know you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, salads are the friendly flag-bearers of Southeast Asian cuisine, guiding ever more Westerners into that noodly, lemongrassy realm. Thai green-papaya salad has its loyal legions, as do Burmese rainbow salad and tea-leaf salad. Cambodian banana-blossom salad is waiting in the wings.
When she opened Nyum Bai in Oakland’s Fruitvale Transit Village in February after operating popular pop-ups in San Francisco and then a kiosk at the Emeryville Public Market, chef-owner Nite Yun placed banana-blossom salad on her menu right from the start.
She makes it with sweet lime dressing, cabbage, basil, fresh mint, the Southeast Asian form of coriander known as laksa, and shredded banana blossoms — which she buys whole at either Berkeley Bowl or East Oakland’s Sontepheap Cambodian Market.
Deep pink outside and creamy inside — traditionally homegrown, picked wild, or purchased at street markets — these densely packed, artichoke-heartish buds appear frequently in Cambodian cuisine.
“They’re delicious in soups and salads, and they’re a must for garnishing Cambodian noodle fish soup — nom pachok,” said Yun, who was born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled Cambodia’s communist Khmer Rouge regime. The family moved stateside, and she grew up in Stockton listening to her father’s beloved vintage Cambodian pop songs and attending Sunday barbecues that featured some of the same dishes she serves now.
Gently crunchy and tasting nothing like bananas, banana-blossom salads are typically served augmented by soup and rice “as a whole meal” — especially at “special gatherings, birthdays, and celebrations at the wat” or Buddhist temple, Yun said.
“We are all about fresh ingredients. When I was in Cambodia, my aunt and I would go to the market every morning to buy our produce. Many Cambodian salads are hearty and have a lot of texture — from peanuts, fried shallots, and the vegetable itself.
“Every part of the banana tree is used: from the leaves, which are used to wrap desserts, to the trunk, which is used to make fibers and baskets. Nothing goes to waste.”
Nyum Bai, 3340 E 12th St., Oakland, NyumBai.com