“Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes” by Chantha Nguon

Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes, Chantha Nguon, Kim Green (Algonquin Books, February 2024) Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes, Chantha Nguon, Kim Green (Algonquin Books, February 2024)

Memoirs from Cambodian and of Cambodians remain rare, at least in English. A Cambodian Odyssey by Haing S Ngor came out almost forty years ago and became a bestseller a few years after the Oscar-award winning film, The Killing Fields. It is hard to think of many since. Until now with Chantha Nguon’s new memoir, Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes, written with Kim Green. 

The book tells the story of Nguon’s two decades as a refugee, but as the title suggests, it includes old recipes she learned from her mother that kept her connected to her culture and her childhood, namely her erstwhile middle class life growing up in Battambang before Lon Nol and later Pol Pot came to power. One of the first recipes she introduces is bobor banh canh or “slow noodles” a dish that requires the rice be soaked overnight. Nguon associates these slow noodles with her comfortable childhood.

 

The dishes I loved best when I was small were the ones that took the longest to make. My puppy sense told me that time equaled love, and love equaled deliciousness. On the time continuum, instant noodles tasted careless, like nothing at all; the kuy teav noodle-maker’s hand-cut mee were far superior. But the slowest and best noodles of all came from my mother’s kitchen.

 

Nguon’s father was Cambodian and came from means while her mother was half-Vietnamese from a more modest background. Nguon’s mother was born in Vietnam and grew up outside Phnom Penh. Decades later, her mother would send her children back to Vietnam when Lon Nol came to power in 1970. The country was no longer safe for anyone who wasn’t 100% Khmer, which included ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese in Cambodia. If Lon Nol seemed repressive, things would get worse.

 

But as it turned out, he had these tendencies in common with the man who would overthrow him: Pol Pot, his Marxist, mirror image. And in 1975, after five years of fighting, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge would win the Cambodian civil war and launch a genocide so horrific and vast in scale that Lon Nol would become a historical footnote.

 

Nguon’s father had died before this upheaval; her mother decided to stay behind in Cambodia, where she would try to sell a family house in Phnom Penh. Nguon and several of her siblings fled to Saigon. Her older sister Chanthu became a mother to her and taught her how to cook more of her mother’s recipes, which provided a connection to their calmer days in Cambodia, even though they couldn’t find all the ingredients due to the scarcity caused by the Vietnam War. Nguon’s mother would reunite with her children in Vietnam five years after she last saw them in 1970, escaping Cambodia just as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge set the country’s clock back to Year Zero.

By the early 1980s, Nguon’s mother had died and Nguon and her boyfriend, a Cambodian Chinese man named Chan, decided to leave Vietnam for the west. The easiest way to do this was to reach a refugee camp in Thailand, which would entail first crossing through Cambodia. In 1984, Nguon returned to Cambodia for the first time in fourteen years.

 

… as the bus pushed deeper into Cambodia, we could see that something wasn’t quite right about the scenes that scrolled by. The years since Zero (or 1975, depending on your preferred calendar) had altered the countryside in ways I couldn’t pinpoint. A fevered sunlight scoured the too-quiet landscape. The villages we passed looked beaten down, with most houses in disrepair and some in states of near collapse. The ordinary buzz of life seemed slowed down or suspended in time, as if the images in our bus windows were part of a Stone Age natural history exhibition.

 

The pair reached Thailand and were sent to a UN-run refugee camp. They would live there and in another camp for the next decade. The rules for refugee resettlement would change often during that time and at some point Nguon and Chan had to prove that they were indeed refugees and hadn’t just fled Vietnam for better economic opportunities. Their request to be settled in the US was turned down and by 1993 refugees in Thai camps felt pressure from the UN to voluntarily return “home”.

 

For Nguon and Chan, home was Cambodia. So the pair returned to a country they still could not recognize.

The two worked a number of different jobs before finding employment with international aid organizations in rural Cambodia. They would go on to start their own NGOs, including a hospice center and an organization that teaches women to weave and read and therefore stay out of prostitution. Their group, the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, is still going strong today.

Contrary to possible first impressions, this account did not come from nowhere. Nguon, who has appeared on America’s National Public Radio, and Kim Green (who worked for NPR) have been working on this memoir for at least a decade. This kind of long-term collaboration aside, the memoir stands out from among the many stories of flight from one’s native land in that Nguon did not in fact emigrate, but returned and made a new life.

All these years later, Nguon has taught her daughter these old recipes. Her daughter writes the epilogue and explains that although she’s US and UK university-educated, her mother’s recipes are important to her. And Nguon herself reflects back on how the food from her childhood has preserved Cambodian culture that has been all but lost since 1975.

 

Even now, I feel compelled to cook everything the way my mother and sister did. It’s almost an obsession with me. Any way other than my mother’s and sister’s is the wrong way, and I cannot allow it in my kitchen.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.