After fleeing Cambodia during the brutal regime of Pol Pot, Chantha Nguon spent decades in increasingly desperate poverty, first in urban Vietnam, then the squalor of Thailand refugee camps and finally in the malarial jungles of Cambodia. Through it all, Nguon relied on the delicious food of her childhood for comfort. In her heartbreaking, exquisitely told memoir, Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes, Nguon tells her story with co-author Kim Green.
At the end of each chapter, Nguon shares a recipe; some are delicious and intricate (sour chicken lime soup, village style), others bittersweet (silken rebellion fish fry or as Nguon’s subtitle calls it, “How to Make Unfresh Fish Taste Rather Delicious”). Most of these she learned sitting in her prosperous childhood kitchen, watching her mother and older sister create magical dishes they shared with their less wealthy neighbors.
That generosity got Nguon through her years in exile. She writes of sharing resources when she had so few, and making friends who would find and carry each other again and again. In the Thai refugee camps, where Nguon and others waited years for even an interview, they found a chosen family. “We refugees had nothing,” she writes, “but many of us drew close, and found ways to ease one another’s suffering. . . . Here in camp, we were all poor and full of loss. Often, that united us.”
Throughout Slow Noodles, Nguon returns to that theme: loss and despair giving way to strength. While this is a war memoir, it also is ultimately a story of hope. Despite the decades of horror the Khmer Rouge inflicted on millions of Cambodians, Nguon infuses her memoir with a spirit of persistence and defiance. Even in the face of evil, she continued cooking her childhood dishes, speaking her childhood language and slowly, slowly making her way home again.
“When you have nothing, weakness can destroy you,” Nguon writes. “No one would carry me out of the jungle. I would have to carry myself.”