Theary Cambodian Foods serves up authentic bites in Federal Way

Theary Ngeth wants to preserve Cambodian history with her food.

From escaping Cambodia to sharing dishes with the world, Theary Cambodian Foods has a rich history and rich flavor.

Theary Ngeth owns Theary Cambodian Foods at 2012 S. 320th St., Suite C, Federal Way. She said the business has been open for a year now, and despite sometimes being so slow that they might only make $50 in a day, she will continue.

Additionally, Ngeth said most people who try her Cambodian food like it, and she has habitual customers. She thinks people have just never tried Cambodian food because her restaurant is new, so they don’t know yet that they will like it.

“My repeat customers at the previous locations, they’re kind of like, ‘I want that Cambodian food, that Theary food,’ and they searched, and they found me, and they’re happy that I’m open,” Ngeth said. “So it doesn’t matter where they’re at, they’ll come and make an effort to come.”

Before opening her storefront on July 2, 2023, Ngeth said she attended farmers markets and food events as a vendor. Because of this, she said she still has some customers who drive far to get her food.

Ngeth said the ingredients they use when cooking include lemongrass, kaffir leaves, kaffir Limes, galangal root, garlic and turmeric. She said they turn these ingredients into a paste to put into curry, stir-fry, and various other dishes. She said the dishes are named after what the finishing herb is. For example, Ngeth said a popular Cambodian dish, Somlaw Machu Kroeung, is made with kroeung, the primary spice used.

Ngeth said she did not like cooking growing up, but her mother would always make her help. She said it wasn’t until a friend told her she should cook Cambodian food for the seniors — and continue her parents’ legacy — that she began cooking again.

“When my parents were around, my dad was the driver, and my mom was the chef, so she’d always cook and then take it to the community center, where all the Cambodian seniors came together. They would eat their food and have their activities,” Ngeth said. “But, since my parents are no longer with us, nobody is doing it, and anyone who wants to do it never ends up doing it, so that program died down.”

Ngeth said her cooking is based on memories of her mother and how she liked her food. Additionally, Ngeth said many traditional Cambodian dishes are cooked less often, and alongside that, much of Cambodian culture is dying. Ngeth said she credits some of this to the Cambodian culture changing after the genocide, which killed many elders.

Ngeth said that when she was about 5 years old, she and her family had to flee Cambodia and live in the jungle for about a year. Although they made shelters, she said she would hear gunshots and explosions, so they were always on the run, moving through the jungle. She said they eventually made it to a Thai refugee camp where life was hard. But eventually, they moved to the U.S.

“This is the only opportunity I have to share the story of how Cambodians like their food, our history, and what’s dying,” Ngeth said. “This is my only opportunity to do all of that. How successful it’s going to become, that doesn’t really matter to me as much as I get a chance to share the history and the origin of the food.”

Theary Cambodian Foods combination plate. Photo by Joshua Solorzano/The Mirror

Theary Cambodian Foods combination plate. Photo by Joshua Solorzano/The Mirror