For Chantha Nguon, ‘Slow Noodles’ are a way of life

How a simple Cambodian dish has helped this author heal and start over, and help others do the same

Chantha Nguon's book tells her life story through food.

Ryan Carter

Words by Samantha Pak

Food memories are some of our strongest memories. Just ask Chantha Nguon, co-founder of The Stung Treng Women's Development Center in Stung Treng, Cambodia.

“Food, good or bad, reminds me of something in the past,” she says.

And the 62-year-old Cambodian Vietnamese woman, whose work is focused on helping women in one of the poorest regions of Cambodia come out of poverty and gain independence, knows a thing or two about both good and bad: What started as an idyllic childhood in Battambang, Cambodia, turned on a dime as anti-Vietnamese rhetoric grew under the rule of then-Prime Minister Lon Nol.

“Suddenly, everybody stopped smiling,” she recalls. “My father was Khmer, so we hid in the community. But my mother was worried. We didn’t know what would happen because she was Vietnamese.”

So in 1971, at the age of 9, Nguon and some members of her family fled for Saigon. She lived through the final years of the Vietnam War in Saigon before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and made it impossible for her to return home. It would take her two decades—spent in Vietnam as well as a Thai refugee camp—before she could get back to Cambodia. Along the way, she lost many things: her family, her home, her country.

But something she’s been able to hang onto are the precious memories of her mother’s kitchen, the tastes and smells of her dishes. This is how Nguon remembers her life—through food (or a lack thereof)—and recounts in her book, Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss and Family Recipes, which was released in February. In the memoir, which she co-wrote with Kim Green, Nguon recalls her 20 years in exile while she does everything from serving drinks in a nightclub and cooking in a brothel, to selling street food and spending 10 years in a Thai refugee camp, all with the goal of making it back home.

I recently spoke with Nguon and her daughter Clara Kim, who narrates the audiobook, while they were in Nashville. Nguon is currently living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and Kim is based in London, and we talked about life as a refugee, Cambodia post-Khmer Rouge, our favorite dishes, the future of Cambodian culture, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

An Asian woman dressed in red stirs a pot while a blonde woman in glasses stands next to her and smiles.

From left, co-authors Chantha Nguon and Kim Green.

Ryan Carter

Samantha Pak: Chantha, why did you choose to tell your story?
Chantha Nguon: We have a donor (for our organization, The Stung Treng Women's Development Center) based in Nashville, and she insisted that I should tell my story. She introduced me to Kim Green (co-author of the book). Kim convinced me that my story is very interesting and people will read the book. Still, I didn’t want to. Unintentionally, I was burying a landmine inside me. We had to go through the whole story of my life. It was very difficult, but it was a kind of therapy. When you have pain and you bury it, it just eats you inside, deeper and deeper.

SP: That's something in the Khmer community we don't often talk about: The trauma and the pain. But it's happening more. So my next question is for Clara. Growing up, did you know the full story of your parents and what they went through?
Clara Kim: Yes, I have heard a majority of the stories about my mom because she talks about it a lot. It could be funny or sad, depending on the mood of that day.

I can tell the difference between the way she tells a story and how it affects her, before she was working on the book and after. It has helped her heal a lot. The parts that I wasn't aware of were about my dad. I have heard some stories about my dad, through my mom, but he never talks about it. So I got to know my dad through the book.

SP: Can you talk a bit about the time you spent in the Thai refugee camp? I haven't read a lot of accounts as detailed as yours, and I didn't realize that some people would have been there, like you, for 10 years or more.
CN: People in different camps had different lives. For example, one camp for the whole time, they ate only canned fish. So when a man moved to our camp, and saw canned fish, he started to cry. In my camp, we had only enough money to buy the bones of the chicken. Even nowadays, when I see chicken bones, I can’t look. I feel really, really sick. That's what refugee camps did to refugees.

SP: Can you tell me what the title of the book, Slow Noodles, means to you?
CN: Slow noodles (a soup with thick rice noodles) are my and my mother's favorite dish. It would take the whole morning to make the noodles out of the dough. But also, that was her philosophy in the kitchen. If you want to make something good, you take time for extra love and extra care. That's also my philosophy for life. When you rebuild your life from loss, there’s no short way. I used it for myself and to help other women: If you want to really change your life, you have to work the long way.

SP: Food plays a big role in your life—it's a love language. What is your favorite dish to prepare for other people?
CN: I want whoever I’m with to enjoy the meal. So I normally ask them, “Do you have any requests?” I'm always very nervous about whether people will accept it in a very joyful way. I made fried spring rolls for my old boss. She asked me to make it at least once a week. One of my friends now lives in D.C. Every time I see her, she always asks for the spring rolls. That brings me a lot of joy.

SP: Clara, what's your favorite dish that your mom prepares?
CK: That's a tough one to answer. I'll eat anything [Laughs]. But when I was younger I used to say that my last meal would be her grilled pork ribs. Especially if you eat it with green papaya pickles. It's grilled on charcoal so you have that charcoal smoke. And it's marinated in that Golden Mountain soy sauce, and a lot of other really good stuff. With some hot jasmine rice, it was my favorite thing to eat when I was younger.

An Asian woman with short dark hair dressed in traditional blue and orange Cambodian clothing sits with greenery in the background.

Chantha Nguon.

Stacey Irvin

SP: Chantha, what is your favorite dish to eat?
CN: You know, as a cook, you don't eat much. It’s common with chefs. When I cook and I taste it, that's enough. When I really want food for myself, it’s sach kaw pong thea (braised pork belly and eggs).

SP: Those eggs are the best!
CN: Yes. That, for me, is comfort food.

SP: In the book, you talk about the way that women should be in Cambodian culture—
CN: Chbab srey (a code of conduct for Cambodian women).

SP: Yes. Most of your life, you had to just survive, and didn't really follow those “rules.” Is it different now after the Khmer Rouge?
CN: It still does apply in women's lives in Cambodia. For example, the governor of Stung Treng’s wife is not allowed to go out to see her friends. The generation that’s older than Clara, they still have to follow (chbab srey). The main reason is that the parents didn't send them to school. Now with the younger generations, it's more equal between boys and girls. They are more independent that way because they are more educated.

SP: Can you talk about the organization that you started, The Stung Treng Women's Development Center?
CN: I went to Stung Treng and we settled down and built my family in 1995. I was working for Doctors Without Borders. One of my tasks was working with HIV-positive sex workers. After they finished the project in 2000, I wanted to continue what I was doing for those women. Because from my experience cooking in a brothel, I saw how difficult their lives were.

We built a center for women who have never been to school. They learn literacy and weaving skills. We teach them life skills, about hygiene, about family planning. So the woman who has never been to school, now she's a weaver. She earns an income. She becomes independent. Less domestic violence happens in those families. They have fewer children, and they send their children to school. And some of their children speak English.

SP: You and your husband wanted to help rebuild Cambodia. There are so many different ways you can help in a country that's been affected by so much. Why was this the path that you chose?
CN: Because to be a woman in Cambodia is vulnerable enough through the chbab srey. To be a woman who has never been to school is 100 times more difficult, more vulnerable. I've been there, and I know how to get out. I wanted to help them, to share my experience.

The cover of "Slow Noodles."

SP: Clara, you were born in Cambodia and grew up in this post-Khmer Rouge society. What was it like for you as a young girl to see this kind of work that your parents were doing?
CK: There was a lot of poverty still, even in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Stung Treng was probably one of the least developed parts of the country.

With the work that I saw my parents did, I felt like no matter how little you have, or how little power you think you have, there's always something you can do. Any small act of kindness goes a long way.

SP: Chantha, you talk about your time in Saigon and Thailand, and all these different places that you lived while trying to get back to Cambodia. What was it like when you finally were able to settle and say, “Things are okay. We can stay in Cambodia and we're safe?”
CN: It was more than 20 years later that we were able to believe we had a home and we were safe. That's when we decided to have our children. We didn't have children because we never believed we were safe.

SP: How does it feel to have your story out in the world now?
CN: It's still surreal to me—especially in the United States. It's not my home. We’ve had a few events and one thing that made me so proud and happy that I did this story is meeting the Khmer community, like you. I am connecting to the Khmer community in the States and that makes me very, very happy.

Two Asian women in dark clothing stand together, with a street and colorful flags in the background.

From left, Chantha Nguon and daughter Clara Kim.

Jean-Francois Perigois

SP: And Clara, what is it like for you to see your mom tell her story and to have that story now out in the world?
CK: It wasn’t an easy process for her to write this story. But I am proud that it is out, and I think in a way, it gives Cambodian people a voice. I want to change how people think about Cambodia. Yes, we have had a terrible history. But we also have other things to offer—like our food. When people think “Khmer” or “Cambodian,” I don't want them to only think of the Khmer Rouge. I want them to think about Cambodian food. The way people think about Thai food like, “We should get Thai food tonight.” I want people to say, “We should get Cambodian food tonight for dinner,” across America and the world.

It was so wonderful to see Cambodian Americans at the events that we've had so far and for them to come to us and say, “It's so cool to have an event for Cambodian people and also about Cambodia,” in a place like Nashville, for example. The fact that people are actually curious and interested, it just makes me feel really hopeful that in maybe 15, 20 years, the world will think of Cambodia a little bit differently.

SP: We have more to offer than just our trauma.
CK: Yes, exactly!

SP: It's always nice to see the work that people are doing to uplift the Khmer community. These are some of my favorite things to do in terms of my work. I love talking to other Khmer people to see what they're doing.
CK: It's so cool to see how Cambodian people in America help not only preserve our culture that was lost back then, but also to just spread awareness and share the love of our culture with other communities. It makes me feel so proud to see that happening.

Published on June 12, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.