Bronx Eats: Celebrating the Cambodian Buddhist New Year at Wat Jotanaram in Bedford Park
At a time of year more synonymous with chocolate bunnies and egg hunts, one Bronx congregation gathered to celebrate a different holiday. Home to some 2,000 Cambodians, the borough boasts one of only two Khmer Buddhist Temples in the city: Wat Jotanaram. The temple, a two-family house tucked into a hill in residential Bedford Park, played host to the community's three-day celebration of their traditional Cambodian Buddhist New Year. Blessing and alms, led by the Venerable Kandaal Puoch, preceded a backyard gathering of grilling, fish sauce, and conversation. On a tip from Eating in Translation's Dave Cook, I made my way there to join in the celebrations. Thick Bronx accents faded into the streets, replaced by rapid-fire clicks of Khmer shot through the incense-perfumed air.
Cambodians first came to the Bronx as immigrants from the Pol Pot genocide, and since then have been trying to preserve a tenuous link to the country that was taken from them. The organization's invitation suggested that the event was about more then just religious observance: "when we practice and improve our civilization in everyday life, we really make our Cambodia alive, strong, and progressive."
The buffet of traditional foods—all prepared by local families—made clear that the celebration was an opportunity for the elders, frequently unable to speak English, to share their heritage with American-raised children on a tangible level. Congregation member Rottana Chamroeun explained, "you know, the older people, they do this for the kids. Because if they lose their culture, they get lost. They don't know who they are."
The food, especially the fried taro and desserts, was notably tasty. But the real draw for this event was the company. For more information on future events, check out the temple's website.
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.