Sophina Uong Embraces Chinese to Cajun Influences at Mister Mao

At New Orleans’ Mister Mao, Sophina Uong highlights influences from her culinary journey—leaning heavily on Cambodian, Indian, and other Asian flavors—in what she calls an “unapologetically inauthentic” space. “We’re not trying to make other people’s cuisine through our food. These are just some flavors that we really enjoy, and you know, we think maybe you should try them, too.”

Sophina Uong, chef-owner of Mister Mao

Uong didn’t grow up cooking the foods of her home country. Although her family owned several doughnut shops in Long Beach, California, and she occasionally tasted the Cambodian food of her home country, it was a Betty Crocker microwave cookbook that put her on a path to the kitchen. “I was 9 years old and I just kind of got thrown into it, teaching myself to cook,” she says. “It was that and boxed foods.”

Dehydrated potatoes, Hamburger Helper. She cooked most things in a Pyrex dish. But one time, realizing she’d forgotten to add the liquid, she pulled the piping-hot glass dish out of the oven and poured in some water. “The dish just exploded—glass everywhere. I got busted later because it was such a mess. But lesson learned, right?”

Ever experimental, Uong eventually put those self-taught skills to use in restaurants, cooking her way from Southern California to San Francisco to New York to Minnesota. Along the way, she ate and was inspired by, every type of cuisine she encountered—Ligurian-inflected Californian; Dominican, Cuban, and Brazilian found while living in Brooklyn; modern French in the Bay Area; and everything from Chinese to cajun en route. Today, at Mister Mao, which Uong and her husband, William Greenwell, opened in 2021, Uong’s bold use of heat ties together all the influences that shaped her culinary path.

In New York, she lived in a Guyanese neighborhood where next-door neighbors would hang out on the stoop and introduce her to plantains and ackee, a Jamaican fruit, along with sandwiches doused with a habanero sauce; her variation of the hot sauce shows up all over the menu at Mister Mao and acts as the base of a “napalm” sauce bolstered by ghost peppers.

In New Orleans, an Indian grocer introduced Uong to a world of spices. “He would tell me his secrets of how to use certain spices, what went with what, and how to mix masalas for various dishes. But what I really learned from him was that you could break the rules of cooking any cuisine if you knew how to best get the flavor from each spice,” she says. Her curried chickpea and potato pani puri chaat pays tribute to that ethos. “We take it to another level, and yet, we also just simplify it.”

While Cambodian food didn’t reenter her cooking sphere until about six or seven years ago, she’s reclaimed the recipes that remind her of home—especially a hot and sour soup, once made by her mom, now a comfort food for her own daughter.

“It was just one of those soups you eat with a side of rice. My mom used to make it super fishy, with fish heads and eyeballs—and I would always get the eyeballs,” she says. Today, she makes it with Gulf shrimp, amping it up with shrimp head oil. “Otherwise it’s that same, simple, sweet and sour flavor.” Flavor, inauthentic or otherwise, that she hopes you just might want to try, too.

Three Mouthwatering Recipes from Sophina Uong

Habanero peppers

Quick Habanero Sauce

Get ready for it to be faster to make hot sauce than run to the store and grab a bottle. This mind-bogglingly simple recipe is here for seasoned spice lovers and trepidatious newcomers alike. Peppers, garlic, sugar, salt, and a little vinegar, could it get easier?

Pani Puri

Potato Masala Pani Puri with Date and Tamarind Chutney and Fiery Mint Water

This recipe for stunning little pockets of rich spice and tang offers your tastebuds a ticket into a classically Indian experience with a few inspired twists. Enjoy the flavors of cumin, chile powder, and pungent dates. The crisp outer shell is the perfect bed for the decadent expanse of flavors that will dance over the tongue.

Khmer Hot + Sour Soup

Khmer Hot + Sour Soup

This Cambodian-inspired hot and sour soup mixes the airy aromas of lemongrass and basil with the earthy flavors of garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and shrimp. With the surprising addition of pineapple, this recipe is here to amaze and refresh the soul.

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