Written by Vannida S. Kol
Graphic by Caitlin Currie
Over the summer, I returned to Cambodia, where most of my family lives. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had not seen my beloved parents and little brother in about 3 years. When they asked me what I wanted to do when I got there, I immediately said, “Eat!”
As a Cambodian-American who has lived without her parents for the past 6 years, I often yearn for the flavors of my homeland. Somlor machu, a genre of sour soups made with ingredients like pineapple, lotus root, and turmeric, to name a few. Jek jean, or fried bananas, a popular street snack that fully maintains the fruit’s sweetness, unmarred by grease. Sach ko ang, grilled beef skewers accompanied by pickled vegetables and bread slathered with melted butter and condensed milk. These are only a couple of my favorite dishes that cannot be easily replicated in America, where these ingredients are either rare, expensive, or unavailable due to differences in food agriculture.
I miss the aromatic smells of my mother’s cooking that would summon me from my bedroom around dinnertime after long hours of studying. Whenever Nana An would come to live with us for half the year, she would prepare meals for my brother and me, shaping our portions of white rice into hearts. And of course, there is the tradition of potluck at family parties, where aluminum foil food trays took dominion of kitchen counter spaces and seemed to magically refill themselves. With such fond memories, I have come to associate Khmer cuisine with community, comfort, and security. Our food is a reflection of our cultural values and of the love that has endured through generations. It is a way for me to access the stories of my ancestors.
Many of us young Cambodian-Americans are the children of refugees, struggling to understand our own history. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge communist regime overthrew the country, subjecting its people to one of the worst genocides in human history; the highest estimate of the death toll is 3 million. They specifically targeted the educated class because those equipped with knowledge are capable of inspiring hope, and therefore, rebellion. Government officials, the clergy, doctors, teachers, etcetera – they were all seen as threats. People like my grandparents, who worked in university settings, concealed their identities in order to protect their families.
My theory is that it hardly mattered whether or not someone was educated. They only fabricated reasons to justify their cruelty. No elder, child, man, or woman was excluded from it. This atrocity forced Cambodia to become a nation of survivors, desperately and passionately searching for life.
My parents were members of the Cambodian diaspora that settled in Austin, Texas at the turn of the 21st century. They, too, are survivors. My father ran through minefields at the age of sixteen to escape to Thailand. My mother and her sisters grew up malnourished, relying on grilled geckos and tablespoons of rice. America, land of abundance, was safer, but it was full of strangers. To feel connected to any remnants of home, they sought out other Cambodians, the only people who knew how hard it was to leave your family behind in a broken nation.
The largest pockets of immigrants either went to Long Beach, California, or Lowell, Massachusetts. The Cambodian community in Austin is small, but it is incredibly compassionate and intimate. I grew up genuinely believing that I had blood relations with dozens of aunties, uncles, and cousins – it just goes to show how much we take care of each other. Most of my memories of these kind people are situated in the kitchen or dining area. Om Leng, whenever she sees water spinach at the market, will automatically prepare my favorite soup and drop it off at my house, just because she knows it’s my favorite. If there was a party at Om Na’s house, you can count on nompajok being served, Khmer style and curry style. It’s guaranteed that Cambodian people will never let you leave hungry or without leftovers for later!
This may sound like an exaggeration, but I believe that Cambodian food possesses this extraordinary secret. Once upon a time, I had a relative –now a mythical figure of my making– who pounded lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and other herbs with a mortar and pestle to create kroeung, a spice/herb paste unique to our cuisine. Whenever my mom cooks it, there is the echo of someone who taught her, a tradition that reverberates as we trace back the history of everyone who used their hands to prepare something so delicious and wonderful.
The generations who came before us were stolen by the Khmer Rouge. Ancestors and relatives that should be alive today could have passed down their love in stories and dreams and recipes. Family separated by time and space are able to find joy in the same flavors of home. Such dishes allow for a mode of communication to exist within the realm of memory. I will never meet my ancestors and fully understand the weight of their suffering, but food acts as a record of their existence, allowing their presence to join us at the dinner table. And the Khmer dishes that I cook and consume only allow for their love to sustain me.
*Note: Honorifics in the Khmer language are dependent on kinship and age. Nana is my family’s word for grandmother; the proper Khmer term is makyey. Om is an aunt or uncle that is older than your parents.