Cambodian dessert business grows in Bella Vista

Coconut sticky rice enveloped in banana leaves.
Coconut sticky rice enveloped in banana leaves. (DREW LAZOR)
Posted: April 26, 2013

FOR THOSE OF US who don't have a prahok-slinging Phnom Penh grandma on standby, real Cambodian food is a little hard to find here, especially in comparison to the Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian options available to hungry fans of Southeast Asian cooking. Luckily, that's starting to change, with sit-downs like South Philly's Khmer Kitchen and Lawncrest's Angkor spreading the charms of the cuisine beyond the city's strong Cambodian population.

While those restaurants build followings, a new venture - a little sweeter, but still fluent in Khmer - is taking shape. Anna Hitchens, along with her husband, Tim, has a fledgling food business in Koliyan, hoping to position itself as the local go-to for Cambodian desserts.

Koliyan, a traditional Khmer girl's name, translates to "beloved," which describes the reverence Hitchens possesses for Cambodian cuisine. The first member of her family to be born in America, she's the child of immigrants who came here in 1982 after time spent in post-war refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines.

Born in Philly but raised in Connecticut and South Carolina, she spent many summers back here working at Fresh Express, her uncle's doughnut shop at Broad and Oregon. (He's since sold it.)

"My dad's side is very entrepreneurial," said Hitchens, whose father is one of eight. "As a child, they wanted me to be busy. I wasn't sent off to summer camp. I was sent off to a doughnut shop."

Grandmother's recipes

Working at the shop left Hitchens well-versed in American sweets, but it was her grandmother's native preparations that stuck. "She wouldn't talk much about it - she would just do it," recalled Hitchens of her gradmother's "authoritative" kitchen style, which involved no exact portions or measurements.

Her grandmom's num, the Khmer catch-all term for desserts, ranged from coconut sticky rice enveloped in banana leaves to crispy, chewy cassava tart, only a few of the traditional desserts she's representing through Koliyan.

When Hitchens' grandmother passed away, the sweets stopped making regular appearances, as she was the only one who knew how to make them. The family had to "wait for another wedding or another celebration to get to eat the desserts," she said. That shortage was among the motivations behind Hitchens' decision to establish Koliyan. Another: the honeymoon trip she and Tim, a social worker, took to Cambodia, the first time any member of her family had been back since their immigration.

Reconnecting with the language, culture and food persuaded Hitchens, who holds a master's degree in organizational behavior from Harvard, to uncover as much as she could about Cambodian desserts in Philly. "As it turns out," she discovered, "they don't exist here." (At least publicly; her grandma would sell hers to those in the know.) Already looking to leave a position in the public-health realm, she got to cooking.

Without the guidance of written instructions, it was up to Hitchens to develop her own approach to num. It began with nailing down ingredients. Most Cambodian desserts are dairy- and gluten-free by nature (vegan, too), and most are not overly saccharine, relying on fresh fruit or cane and palm sugars to sweeten.

"Cambodians don't like eating things that are too sweet," said Hitchens, who balances recipe-testing with a job at Town Hall Coffee Co. in Merion Station. "No one I know who's Cambodian likes frosting."

A six-dessert feast

The majority of the crowd at her most recent tasting, however, was not Cambodian at all. Coworkers, friends and neighbors, plus two of Hitchens' cousins, crowded around a big table in the Hitchens' kitchen in the Hawthorne section near Bella Vista as she, her husband and her mom served up six courses made from scratch.

A slightly savory pudding of kabocha squash, wrapped and steamed in banana-leaf packets. Lychee and jackfruit, set into fanciful jellied shapes with agar and served with fresh dragonfruit. A room-temp tapioca soup with hunks of purple yam and taro. And the finale, a coconut waffle served with a scoop of ice cream made with durian, the notoriously pungent tree fruit that looks like something straight out of Mario Kart.

When it comes to Koliyan's num, the flavors in play are simple and natural - nothing syrupy or ornate, and more refreshing than rich. Feedback from Hitchens' two tastings, held at her home, uncovered another area of unfamiliarity. "The texture's something [tasters] weren't used to," said Hitchens. "A lot of my American friends are used to desserts that are more cakey, less gelatinous."

The waffles and ice cream and baked cassava cakes split that difference.

Koliyan is still in its early stages, so the Hitchens aren't sure how they'll roll out just yet. Maybe via subscription or special order. They're also discussing private catering, events and farmers markets. (They'll work out of a commercial kitchen in West Philly.) The goal is to have a permanent physical location by the end of 2014.

Before that, they'll return to Cambodia this December for further exploration.

Plenty may change between then and now, but Hitchens' approach to her beloved desserts will not. "I could make them more toward the American palate, but for me, what's the point?" she said. "When I crave sweets, I don't crave cupcakes."

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Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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