The Delight of Creating in a Cambodian Kitchen

When I cook in Cambodia, I cook in a kitchen with a green tile floor and a slightly uncovered roof.

This room is where most of my husband’s childhood meals originated. Tonga’s grandmother’s house, on the ground floor of French colonial-era apartments, has seen days and years and generations. It is situated on a duong ham, or what westerners would see as just an alley – but this kind of alley is full of life. Neighbour kids play, families make and sell noodles, vendors sell fruit from the back of their bikes. It is also where the maternal side of my husband’s family continues living three decades on.

When I first learned to cook, it was in a crooked kitchen.

The floor of my childhood home, a 200-year-old Pennsylvania farmhouse, slanted at such an angle that my sisters and I liked to strap on roller skates. We stood at one end and rolled down to the other.

The sounds that broke into our fun were from indignant chickens, goat conversations, and guinea fowl alerting the whole neighbourhood to any slight disturbance. Zucchini, beans, corn, and spinach entered our kitchen from the massive garden just outside. But that kitchen is just where I learned to cook. There were more kitchens, later. And I became experienced with making a meal in settings that should have been uncomfortable. Or at least, different.

Since our marriage almost six years ago Tonga and I visited this Phnom Penh duong ham four times and counting. With each visit I find myself slipping more naturally into its rhythm and into our own Cambodian rhythm. As soon as we unpack and chat with grandma and mom, and maybe nap, we think about what to eat. If we decide to cook it’s time to walk a few streets away to buy herbs, meat or fish, vegetables, and spices.

We walk carefully to avoid being hit by a motorbike or the trucks that somehow squeeze their way between buildings and people. Mindful of the puddles made of mysterious substances, we pick our way through and knock on the door to tell Grandma we're back.

A long melon soup we made in the Cambodian kitchen, served at our tea ceremony.

By now Tonga is used to my wanting the run of the kitchen.

Honestly that part stays the same no matter where in the world we are. Instead, he automatically sets up a fan to keep the mosquitos away from my feet. He cleans the top of the washing machine that will double as counter space. He checks that there’s rice in the cooker.

The toilet is situated just off the kitchen, and a space above it is just covered by a wide piece of mesh. Dust finds its way there every day, so any cooking means first re-washing the tools. A knife, chopping board, bowls for prepared veggies, bowls for washing them. Once it’s all set up, I can begin.

The motions of cooking are the same everywhere but here, the setting is extra. People shout, advertising their items for sale as they walk by. My music plays in the kitchen, sometimes while Khmer pop (the real K-pop) or the “old music” from Cambodia’s Golden Age plays from the street. Neighbours stand in the doorway to chat to Grandma or Tonga. Sometimes they’re really there for curiosity’s sake and peek into the kitchen to see what I’m doing. When we forget to buy little things like garlic, pepper, or palm sugar at the market, there's an easy solution. Tonga takes just a few steps across the duong ham to buy some at the neighbour’s grocery store.

Cambodian pork belly
Pepper pork belly was one of the dishes we cooked in the Cambodian kitchen.

I revel in this interesting chaos.

I marinate in the juxtaposition of familiar motions against an unfamiliar background. I delight in the abundance and freshness of the herbs that, in Australia, are tired and expensive.

But I gotta be honest. It’s not all romantic. A hundred mosquitos fight the wind from the fan to bite my knees. My squeals when a mouse peeks out of its hiding place provoke a too-casual-for-my-taste “All good?” from Tonga in the living room. The workspace is limited. It’s usually very, very hot. I’ve cooked here dozens of times. I know it’s not a movie.

But then palm sugar sizzles in a wok. A bit of ground Kampot pepper wafts into the air. I grasp the handle of a wooden spatula, and the motions of stirring are as familiar as breathing to me. Cooking is creating, and I’ve been creating since I was eight. Creating in crooked 200-year-old American farmhouses, in small college dorm kitchens, in townhouses and flats, at a friend’s house. I created food in different states and different countries. I created for fun and created from very little because a girl's gotta eat but a girl doesn't always have a lot of cash. Even when I made boring food out of necessity it felt like making art to me.

In that small, hot, Cambodian kitchen I still find myself cooking for art. It’s the place I practice and work out, under Tonga’s tutelage, the flavours I’ve experienced that day.

“That spring roll we had at lunch…was there taro in there? What made it so...umami?”
“Was there palm sugar in that coconut milk? Let’s try it and see.”

That little kitchen is where Tonga reminisces about the way his Grandma made soup when he and his cousins were young. Sometimes he tries to recreate it so I’ll know what the taste should be like when we get back to Melbourne and I’m trying again in our own kitchen.

Some of the dishes we cooked and served from our Cambodian kitchen during our tea ceremony with some elder relatives.

I know the day will come when I won't return to that Cambodian kitchen.

The building is at least seventy years old and each time we visit another piece seems to have crumbled off. One day the memories there won’t belong to my in-laws anymore, and when we visit Srok-Khmer I’ll find myself in a different kitchen. I hope that, wherever it is, I can still hear old Khmer music playing from the street, and schoolkids shouting to each other on their walk home for lunch, and people advertising their wares as they walk or cycle past.


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