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Women Who Travel Podcast: Love, Loss, and Noodles in Cambodia

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This week, Lale chats with author Chantha Nguon—along with her daughter Clara and co-author Kim Green—about her new memoir Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes. Listen to hear the trio share stories of their travels across Cambodia and collaborations in the kitchen, while Chantha reflects on life as a Cambodian refugee, life in 1960s Battambang, and the dishes that have always kept her connected to home.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi there. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and this is Women Who Travel. I'm so excited today to be sharing a story about food, memory, and storytelling from Cambodia. We'll be diving into making noodles rolled by hand, the way our guest mother and sister used to make them.

Chantha Nguon: This is how my mother rolled the noodles. You can look at your watch and you see each noodle take about half minute. It's a piece of dough, like a little finger. And when you roll it like this, you make the noodle tougher.

LA: Chantha Nguon has written Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes. She tells the story of her escape from Cambodia in 1970 as a nine-year-old, fleeing the dictatorship of Pol Pot, and moving to Saigon, and then a refugee camp in Thailand. After two decades of exile, she returns to a very different Cambodia.

CN: You can ask me, and I go out with you, and whatever you eat, I can explain to you what it is. We can go to the Khmer restaurant, and eat Khmer food. Yeah. That's what we like from Cambodia. The world doesn't know about Cambodian food. I don't know what is the reason. We are too small abroad, or we don't have anybody to help us to bring it out.

Kim Green: These are busy street markets like the kind you would see all over Cambodia, all over Southeast Asia, with really crowded scooters and bicycles, going through people cheek by jowl, and fresh ingredients and bounty everywhere, like fish jumping out of buckets, and sometimes live chickens, and lots and lots of vendors.

LA: That's audio of Chantha, recorded by reporter Kim Green, as Chantha takes her on trips to different markets all over Cambodia and Chantha walks her through dishes that trigger her own memories. Kim Green is co-author of the book. She and Chantha are pretty much like family now. Right now, I'm talking to Chantha, with her daughter Clara. They've traveled a long way to meet at Kim's home in Nashville before going on the book tour. First, Clara.

Clara Kim: I flew in from London on Saturday. I think it took me about 11 hours, so I'm slightly jet-lagged. My mom flew in from Cambodia. Quite a 13-hour difference, so I think she's having some jet-lagged as well.

LA: I know that London jet-lag very well, but the Cambodia time difference I'm not familiar with. How have you been beating the jet lag so far?

CK: We did have a bowl of rice porridge, or also known as congee, yesterday and today, and I think that helped cure a big part of it.

LA: Where did you find the congee?

CK: We made it.

LA: I guess I now have my new cure for jet lag. Growing up, Clara spent many hours learning her mother's recipes.

CK: A lot of the stories I heard growing up, and I think it was the same way that Kim heard the stories, are mostly through meals and times I spent in the kitchen with my mom. Her memories are often triggered by food, and it can be really difficult to guess which kind of story you are going to hear that day. It could be a wonderful story, a funny story about her time in the kitchen with her sister and her mom, or it could be a really, really sad story about her time in the forest, or in the refugee camp, or in Vietnam. To be honest with you, I hated some of those moments, because as a child it can be really difficult to figure out a way to help your mother feel better. I didn't know how to help her feel better, and I hated seeing her cry. I didn't quite understand how painful those memories can be.

LA: Kim, what's it been like to hear all these stories from Chantha? How did you go about honoring them?

KG: Before you said the word honor just now, I was thinking the word honor because I felt like it was an honor to hear the stories, and a big responsibility, because asking her to share the stories, it was a heavy ask. Every time she told the most painful parts of her history, it hurt her. The responsibility that goes along with asking someone to do that is huge, but also it is an incredible honor to be trusted like that.

I met Chantha in 2011. She was in Nashville meeting with a longtime donor, who had supported her women's weaving center in Cambodia for years. I did a story about that, and we hit it off. A year later, there I was in Cambodia, and spent two weeks with her, talking about whether we should write a book. She wasn't sure whether anyone would care about her story, which shocked me, because I certainly cared about it, and I thought her story was really important.

But I listened, and we talked about her reluctance. The biggest thing, I think, is that she didn't want to tell just a tragedy story. We talked about how to tell her story in a way that was threaded with hope and with her resilience. But also, I have realized during the course of that two weeks, I saw that whenever we were talking about her life, and she was cooking, or we were eating together, the stories just flowed out so naturally. I could see that cooking was her artistry, and she loved remembering her mother's recipes and the meals of her childhood.

CN: We wrap the bánh xèo piece by piece in lettuce, and sliced cucumber, and some mint or Thai basil, and dip in sweet and sour sauce. But it's always fun together, because we need many people to eat the bánh xèo. Once you make it, you have to make it a lot. You cannot make one or two for yourself. It's always the meaning of family togetherness for bánh xèo still there.

KG: I propose this to her, "What if we tell your story through those remembered meals and the recipes that your mother taught you? In that way, your book could share your culture with people. It could pay tribute to your mother and sister, and their artistry in the kitchen.

CN: The more time you put in to prepare it, the better dish you produce. For me, putting more time mean putting more love. The more care you put in, it shows that the time we spend together to prepare that food is we stay with you for the rest of your life. You remember the story, you remember the time you spend with your family, especially me. The slow noodles takes many hours, and during those times, she told the stories of everything that just made me love the dish because of the story and the time we spent together. That's the memory brought, back the best time of my life, and that's how I tried to recreate it when I was able to for my children and for my friends. That's the memory I had when I didn't have anything to cook, and I didn't have anybody to cook for me.

KG: When we were talking about ideas for the cover with the designer, of course the title is Slow Noodles, and there is an actual dish that is the titular slow noodles dish. It's hand-rolled rice noodles, and you can actually see those in the design, the border. It's these irregular shaped short noodles, bánh canh noodles.

People ask about Cambodian cooking, or Khmer cooking, but not all Cambodian cooking is Khmer, especially if you come from a family that is of Vietnamese heritage, or of Chinese heritage. Because Chantha's mother was Vietnamese, she cooked a lot of Vietnamese dishes. She also cooked a lot of French dishes, in fact. Chantha's Cambodian food includes lots of different kinds of dishes from French, Vietnamese, to Khmer.

LA: Some of Chantha's fondest memories are sneaking out to buy street food snacks in Battambang, a town known for its culinary traditions, especially from one particular Chinese vendor.

CN: That's a sound of his music, bamboo, and his wife sells fruit, select what you call it. She put the fruit in the glass and then grated ice, and then the syrup on the top. That's my favorite place I spend money on, any time of day or night, and whatever the money I can get. I asked from my mother, after every day, I came from school, I asked for two riels, because that jackfruit in ice and syrup was my favorite. Every day after school, I asked my mother for two riels and runs straight there. A while later, when my father finished his work, and he had his desk, so he emptied his pocket and he had showers. While he was in shower, my mother was in the kitchen. I just borrowed two riels more from his pile, and run straight to the jackfruit salad. That's my favorite. I never had enough.

LA: I love that sort of thing when you're a kid, because you think that you're totally getting away with it and that no one knows. I'm sure both your parents knew you were going for seconds.

Battambang is a hub in the northwest of Cambodia. Could you explain a little bit about where it is in? Kim and Clara, I'm interested to know if you've gone there?

CK: Yes, I can talk about that. I actually grew up in Northeastern, bordering Laos. I have been to Battambang a few times, because it's actually the second-biggest city in Cambodia. It's wonderful. The food is very, very good. I remember the first time I went there with my mom. It was actually a very emotional trip, because she talked a lot about her childhood, the church, and the school she went to. We ate a lot of really delicious food there.

My mom's amok, for example, is one of a very well-known dish from Battambang, and it's very different than any version of amok in the country. It's a steamed fish marinated in curry paste, or we call it Kroeung paste, with coconut milk, and you steam it in a banana bowl. It's probably the best version you can find in the country. It's from Battambang. Kim, maybe you can talk a little bit more about your trip to Battambang with my mom.

KG: Here we are arriving at the grounds of the compound where Chantha's childhood church and the Catholic school she attended as a kid. The church compound was actually part of a functioning Catholic parish again, and it looked like it was really thriving; a beautiful lush, serene compound. There's some kind of a funeral song playing in the distance, which is beautiful and ethereal.

CN: This is the bell of the church when I was kid.

KG: It's a hot, beautiful, sunny day, birds singing. We find, on one of the buildings, a photograph of the old church, a group photo of some of the nuns and priests who had been there when Chantha was a little girl. She remembered them, she recognized them, and then she spotted a man. He seemed to have an injury, a limp. He was there with a bicycle. He was sitting there, and she walked up to him to ask him about the picture. They're speaking in Khmer, but I see both of their faces lighting up, and they start to speak in this animated way. After they talked, she comes back, and she says, "He was one of the orphans in the orphanage here when I was a student, and he remembers a lot of the same people." After so much loss and destruction, for her to have found evidence of her lost world in that moment, it just felt magical, and it felt hopeful.

LA: Coming up, trying to recreate dishes under conditions of extreme rationing became an act of resistance. In the years she spent in exile in Vietnam, Chantha survived by cooking in a brothel, serving drinks in a nightclub, weaving silk, and making street food and producing tofu with her sister.

CN: We had a few years when my sister, selling tofu in the market, and that's how it came. To make the good tofu, you have to bring it hot to the market, the same with the rice noodle. She started at 12 midnight to be able to have the tofu sells in the market at six in the morning. So that's how we met the tofu.

LA: The audiobook version of Slow Noodles is read by Clara.

CK: This is actually an excerpt from the book. It's during the time when my mom was in Vietnam. I quickly deduced that this new rationing math wasn't as simple as the slogan implied. The rules were in constant flux. Initially, we were to receive nine kilos of rice per month. That sounded reasonable to us, but the next month we were only allotted three kilos of rice. Three kilos of potato equals one kilo of rice, we were told. We received two of our three kilos of rice in the form of six kilos of potatoes.

The following month, the authorities declared, triumphantly, "Now you will receive, not merely rice and potato, but also cassava," as if by deducting rice, and adding cassava, we had been granted a wealth of options, instead of being deprived of the one thing we actually wanted. The month after that, it was announced that the potato ration would again decrease. Initially, an exciting prospect, as we had consumed quite enough potato, but the party replaced the potato deficit with a stone hard whole wheat bread, made from bad Soviet flour and fortified with small black insects.

LA: When you ended up in Thailand, eventually, were there moments when food brought you joy?

CN: No. In the refugee camp, it was even worse than Vietnam. There is no way food can bring me any joy, but the memory of food was useful by then, thinking about the good food, and to swallow the very bad taste food we had in the refugee camp.

LA: What food did you think about?

CN: Of course, I always refer to my first nine years of life.

LA: After the break, the return to Cambodia.

Clara, I'd love you to do a second reading. Here's when Chantha finally returns to a Cambodia she doesn't recognize.

CK: When the bus stopped in a village, hollow-faced vendors surrounded us and stared into the windows. I bought num ansom, a sticky rice cake usually filled with pork and mung beans, and asked the seller, "Is there a coconut in this?" She shook her head without smiling or speaking. This num ansom was nothing like the street food of my childhood. It not only lacked coconut, it lacked everything. There were no mung beans or meat in it at all. My first bite of Cambodian food since I was a little girl was just plain sticky rice, with a few lonesome white beans, wrapped in a palm leaf. It tasted like nothing I remembered.

Slowly, I began to grasp the magnitude of what had changed. I saw no children riding to school or playing in the field. Just a few old people with faces of crumpled paper, solemnly selling meager fare by the road. A high percentage of the remaining population seemed to be wearing a Vietnamese army uniform. I didn't know this place at all. I had kept nothing from my past. No photos or artifacts, only memory.

Cambodia has changed so much in the last 20, 30 years. I don't think my mother's story was the only story that I've heard about. I hear those stories a lot from my neighbors, from my teachers who lived through that time. Growing up in Stung Treng, a northeastern part of Cambodia, Stung Treng was not that much different when my mother had returned. There were mass graves everywhere, landmines that we were taught about in school to be careful. I remember learning it in first grade. On our textbook, there were pictures of signs of skull marks that we were supposed to look out for when we play outside. A friend around my age, at the time, who had stepped on a mine while they were playing or working. Cambodia has a very complicated past and history, and I'm so incredibly proud of the resilience of our people.

LA: When people visit now, in 2024, how should they seek to learn about this complex history, and this complex past 50 years, and be sensitive in doing so? Kim, your understanding of Cambodia, as well, a place that, correct me if I'm wrong, you probably didn't know that well before embarking on this project.

KG: On my three trips to Cambodia, I'm seeing modern Cambodia, but also, in my mind, I'm seeing Chantha's Cambodia, which is her pre-war memories, stories she heard from survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, and then her memories of the immediate post-war country that was so devastated. I see all those layers in my travels, but I think a traveler would just basically see the thriving modern Cambodia, with the fun and lovely bar scene in the river promenade, right there in bustling downtown Phnom Penh. On a food tour in Battambang, Chantha's hometown, you're going to see this thriving country that has remade itself after the wars, but under the surface, the past is always there. And if you look for it, you can find it.

I think it's possible for travelers to go to Cambodia without really realizing what happened there, that their civilization almost was destroyed, that the cities were emptied. The whole country was turned into a huge forced labor camp. There's evidence of that everywhere, but you would have to be paying attention to know it was there. There's the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and I did go there. The day I went, I had the strangest experience, and I can't explain it. It's irrational, but I remember being in there and watching a short documentary, and thinking suddenly, "I have to get out of here. I feel like I'm going to be locked in." I just suddenly felt bizarrely afraid, for no reason. I walked out the front door of that place, and I kept walking until I'd put several miles between myself and there.

You can't see mass graves at the corner of the village, at the edge of the village. You would have to know they were there. You can't see that there's a former Khmer Rouge cadre living down the street, and that people are afraid of him and they don't talk about him. But those things are everywhere, and you can only really know that by knowing people who tell you, or by doing the reading. Even when I'm there, even when I'm in a normal situation in the capitol, and I'm in a bar, and we're having a nice meal and music is playing, I still just think about what Cambodians endured. It's unimaginable, and it always fills me with awe and deep sadness.

People are interested in her story, and not in all lurid, fascinated, tell-me-your-pain terrible way, but in a reverential, respectful way. Last night, we had a bookstore signing, and several young Cambodian Americans from Nashville came to the signing, and one young woman said, "My mother's name is Chantha, and she's from Battambang, and now I feel like you've given her a voice," and she cried, and the two of them hugged each other.

LA: Today, Chantha cooks often, just like the feast she's preparing right now in Nashville.

CN: It's a food for poor people, but it's also a side dish that everyone enjoy it. But also, the taste of my grandmother's pickles, it tastes different. The description is it just good. It just nowhere else we can find the pickles like this.

KG: Chantha has been working on this giant, giant bowl of spicy green papaya pickles, which are part of... We're doing a pop-up for a restaurant. Our friends has this wonderful restaurant, and he is letting us run a Cambodian pop-up on Sundays. We're going to be prepping for that, and I think we're going to have to sample a lot of the food as we prep. Amok is one of the dishes, the green papaya pickles. What else are we having?

CK: Grilled pork rib, some stir-fry greens, which I think every single dish is from the book-

KG: Yeah. Yeah.

CK: ... and the banana and coconut cream dessert.

KG: Yeah, and we'll make up some kind of a cocktail, with Cambodian-inspired flavors.

LA: God, I want to eat all of it. I'm fuming that I'm not in Nashville. That sounds fantastic.

KG: We wish you were here.

CK: Yeah.

LA: I'm already dreaming of getting over to Cambodia, to slurp some noodles and eat many versions of fish amok. This episode was brought to life by audio that Kim recorded in Cambodia. Next week, in Women's History Month, we go to the skies and explore the conspiracies behind Amelia Earhart's celebrity, and discover more about her peer, pilot Bessie Coleman, who also died tragically young.

I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram, @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus, Nick Pitman, and James Yost. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner, from Corporation for Independent Media, is our producer. Chris Bannon is Condé Nast head of Global Audio. See you next week.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler