We first met Anna Hitchens of Koliyan at our Create Your Own Career panel event in May. She graciously supplied us with some delicious desserts for our guests, and we were hooked. One of the sweetest and kind-hearted women you’ll come across, Anna inspired us to interview her and learn more about her Cambodian culture and what inspired her to become an entrepreneur in the food industry. Keep reading to find out all about Anna and her business, Koliyan.
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about yourself and why you started Koliyan ?
Anna Hitchens: Growing up, my parents were small business owners, they were very hardworking entrepreneurs, and they were focused on providing me and my brother with opportunities they didn’t have growing up in Cambodia.
As with most first generation kids in the US, I have the advantage of being multilingual, and as a kid I ate amazing food and was surrounded by a big family, but there was a lot of pressure for me to succeed as the first-born female. I usually laugh when I say this, but instead of summer camp, I spent summers in Philly at various family businesses (including a donut shop) starting at the age of 10. I fought to not follow in the footsteps of my entrepreneurial family and dabbled for a few years in finance, social work, and working as a barista.
In 2012, my husband Tim and I went to Cambodia on our honeymoon. The trip was largely a reawakening to the culture I only attributed to my parents, one that I had rejected as “third culture.” It wasn’t until that trip that I made a strong connection – or reconnection – to all things Khmer. I found myself becoming more comfortable with the past, and I was able to ask my parents questions about our buried family history and mahope a-ha recipes.
Really until that point, I felt our heritage and the family’s tumultuous past was too painful to bring up, I really thought it would hurt my parents to mention, but speaking of my trip became a common ground to ask questions. In turn, I became much closer to my parents, and I began to experiment with more Khmer dishes in the kitchen.
Femme & Fortune: You mentioned your Khmer ethnicity. Why is culture preservation so important to you?
Anna: Cultural preservation is extremely important because it’s a reminder of the beauty and resiliency of my family’s past. My parents left Cambodia in the late 1970’s as refugees of war, and as a kid, I often heard personal stories of my family’s survival mode during the genocide – horrors that my paternal side endured and overwhelmingly sorrowing stories of execution and torture that wiped away my maternal side.
Because their pasts were so tragic, those stories often overshadowed the beauty of my family’s legacy and our Khmer culture. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that my maternal grandfather was a famous master musician who worked in the palace of King Norodom Sihanouk. He and my grandmother were wed after he saved her from a military commander who had kidnapped her in hopes of making her his wife.
There are so many amazing stories, and those are really the ones I want to focus on and not fall into the trap of “the single story” of the genocide.
Anna Hitchens: We started by vending at the Greensgrow Fall Fest and Franklin Flea with our desserts, and we’re really open to any similar market scenes that put us in front of an audience with no exposure to Khmer foods. We have a lot of great things coming up with Cultureworks and Penn Vegan!
We also have expanded our operation a bit: we now host events – communal dinners, tasting parties, and cooking workshops – out of our all vegan and gluten-free kitchen.
Femme & Fortune: Your desserts are delicious! We were excited to enjoy them at previous events. What are some of your favorite menu items?
Anna Hitchens: A favorite dessert is our “num asom” which is a coconut infused sticky rice with jackfruit, plantain and black-eyed peas steamed in banana leaves. With demand, we started working on savory foods and sauces.
Because of our commitment to accessibility, all of the items we make are vegan and gluten-free. This path caused me to notice a theme in Southeast Asian cooking: fish sauce. So, a favorite project that we’ve been working on is our new line of vegan fish sauces that we’re calling tuk aut trey. We’re working on refining our recipe, production, packaging, and aiming for retail in the next few months this year.
Femme & Fortune: Where is Koliyan located? Is there a community of Khmers who live in the area where your business is?
Anna Hitchens: Our kitchen is located at 806 S. 6th St in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Philadelphia. I’ve opened up the space for other food industry friends who are looking for a commissary or pop-up location to rent.
There is a large community of Khmers who live south of Washington Ave. It’s actually the neighborhood where my family first settled when moving to the States.
Femme & Fortune: How often do you host workshops at your kitchen? And what types of cooking workshops do you plan on hosting?
Anna Hitchens: We have three workshops every month and we’re adding more as we speak! We have coconut milk workshops and kroeung (Khmer curry paste) workshops on the schedule for early winter, and we’re also hosting Yao Hon (or hot pot), an interactive communal dinner.
Recently, we hosted a sold out hands-on traditional Cambodian coconut milk class. We had participants crack a coconut with the back of a cleaver and scrape the meat using a traditional instrument that looks something like a step stool with a serrated edge, all while sitting on the floor. It’s a really authentic experience, and I think our guests had a lot of fun! To learn more about our workshops and events, you can check out our events page.
Femme & Fortune: Ethnic foods are pretty hard to make and hard to find, right? What advice can you share with some of us who may be interested in adding a bit more flavor to our lives (I mean dishes)? How do we even know where to find or shop for the right dishes and ingredients?
Anna Hitchens: Philly is such a great place to start venturing into different cuisines! You can start by trolling Foobooz, and keep an eye on V4Veg on Philly.com for vegan specific events. Our Washington Ave Pho Houses were even visited by Anthony Bourdain. We’re also fans of amazing restaurants that were featured on Munchies and in Lucky Peach.
A lot of friends are also into food and considering most of us are on tight budgets, I’m a fan of potlucks! All of our ingredients are easy available in the city’s wealth of Asian Markets. Also, our workshops are affordable ($25-$35) and you’ll get to meet other people interested in learning about different food and have fun learning some traditional techniques for Cambodian cooking.
Femme & Fortune: At Femme & Fortune, we are all about work-life balance. How do you maintain that balance as a small business owner?
Anna Hitchens: I find it hard to compartmentalize the two because my work is an extension of a passion. I work towards integrating mindfulness, meditation and yoga but it’s been very difficult. Having a small business can be really lonely at times, especially in the beginning when I was trying to do everything by myself. I have a friend who I consult with regularly about that balance and it’s something that we both call each other out on when we don’t take time to be real person!
Femme & Fortune: Obviously, you love cooking and you’re great at it. Most people would consider cooking as a hobby but you enjoy cooking as a living. Is there a difference between cooking for leisure versus cooking for business?
Anna Hitchens: Big difference! Prior to starting Koliyan and in the early stages, I found cooking to be a major stress reliever and found comfort and pride in being able to cook dishes that mimicked what I grew up eating.
The major difference now is that cooking is just 1 of the 30 things to consider when hosting. There’s paying rent for the kitchen, food safety and sanitation, keeping a budget, branding, making recipes consistent etc.
Femme & Fortune: Do you have any other advice or things you’d like to share with us that we may not have had a chance to ask?
Anna Hitchens: If you’re interested in starting a business, I’d start by gaining some experience in the industry and doing some informational interviews. You can never have too much experience (and savings) before starting your own venture!
Thank you to Anna for sharing her beautiful story with us here at Femme & Fortune. Make sure to visit Koliyan in Bella Vista and try some of her delicious, Cambodian dishes soon. Stay updated with Anna via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too!