A year ago, Saran Plork left 14 years in the hair industry to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She started selling Cambodian food.
“I didn’t know that I was going to fall into this. I steered clear away because I know how hard of a work it was,” Plork said. “But I’ve always took to food. Like I love food. I love serving people. Even though it’s hard work, it’s still — I’m happy.”
But Plork, 43, diverted slightly from her parents’ path. After Choeun and Reun Plork fled Cambodia in 1980 with their 1-year-old daughter, they started vending in Stockton, Calif. They sold mostly within the Cambodian community because “it’s so much easier,” Plork said.
Plork, who is based out of Los Angeles, is approaching her business differently. She primarily serves Cambodian street corn — corn on the cob glazed with coconut milk, sugar, sea salt and scallions — at fairs and festivals where the clientele is unlikely to immediately recognize the staple.
“I wanted to bring something that is unfamiliar, introduce it to people and have them enjoy because every time I cook it for my non-Asian friends, they all love it,” Plork said. “For as long as I can remember, going to the fair as a child, like we didn’t see food that was familiar to us. So I wanted to bring something that’s familiar to our culture.”
Plork isn’t the only vendor bringing food beyond carnival favorites to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium, which ends Sunday. In addition to being able to sample some out-of-the box offerings, like maple bacon sweet tea, fairgoers can also try foods like Plork’s corn that stem from cultures they may be less familiar with.
Maryland State Fair Director of Sales Jeremy D’Angelo helped bring on some of the fair’s food vendors, including the Cambodian street corn booth, which he called a “fun, unique twist” on a popular food.
“We give preference to, of course, if we can, minority-owned businesses, things like that — those unique, crazy food combinations that you would like to see at the state fair that we think would sell well that offers diversity to the traditional corn dogs, funnel cakes,” D’Angelo said.
D’Angelo also wanted to highlight options for those with dietary restrictions, such as dairy-free and gluten-free fare. That’s why deep-fried watermelon, a new vegan offering, was such an easy fit.
The treat is prepared by married couple Agnes and Frederick Corder, both 41. The two live in the Philippines where they run Maryland ChickAn and serve soul-food Filipino fusion dishes based primarily on Frederick Corder’s family recipes prepared by his wife.
There, they serve fried watermelon inspired by Corder’s grandmother using a vegan version of her homemade cake batter and vanilla icing. While the original recipe was “too big, too weird, too American” to succeed in Manila, Agnes Corder decided to use Filipino love for bite-sized snacks to transform the offering, frying small balls of watermelon in a kawali, the Filipino version of a wok with a rounded bottom.
The hot, sweet doughy snack is now the restaurant’s bestseller, marrying the couple’s two cultures. And while Frederick Corder knows loving fried chicken and watermelon, two items they sell at Maryland ChickAn, is a trope for Black Americans, he also sees a love for those foods reflected in his wife’s culture.
“The concept of stereotyping good food is so passe because you’re holding yourself back. If it’s good, it’s good,” Corder said. “When people see it, they go, ‘Fried watermelon and you sell fried chicken? That’s so Black.’ And I go, ‘It’s also so Filipino.’
“You’re holding yourself back by sort of being scared of what other people might think. You know, if it’s part of your culture, embrace it.”
Yon New, 65, wanted to highlight her culture through her very own restaurant. But her husband, Jeff New, wasn’t interested in a 365-day job after retiring from the military. So now the couple, who met in South Korea where Yon New is from, operate the Oriental Cuisine concession trailer at about 15 festivals a year from May to November.
“Here’s her restaurant on wheels and I take her wherever she needs it to go,” New, 64, said.
The menu, which includes offerings like fried rice, egg rolls and chicken on a stick, is brought to life by Yon New, who her husband said can be very particular — she worked on her sweet-and-sour sauce for two years before being willing to sell it. The menu does not necessarily reflect the South Korean foods she makes at home, which her husband describes as spicier, but they are more recognizable for customers.
“People see the name and they pretty much know what they’re gonna get when they come up,” Jeff New said.
In her first time at the fair, Plork has already had to adjust to customers’ expectations. Enough people asked about elote, Mexican corn on the cob served with a mayo-based cream sauce and chili powder, cheese and lime, that Plork now serves it at her stall.
And on Sunday, Plork decided to serve baby back ribs to her staff. As soon as the meat hit the grill, customers were begging to buy it, Plork said. So now, she’ll be serving those too, because “barbecue ribs and roasted corn, it just goes well together.”
But Plork still hopes she can help customers see what they’re missing out on if they don’t order Cambodian street corn, which Plork sells with the promise that it’ll make your eyes roll back.
“We’re working hard at pushing this agenda,” Plork said. “I wish more people would go out and sell this more. I don’t care who sells it — I want more people to sell it so that it will be more recognized.”