2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

She Despised the Flavor of Short Cuts

She Despised the Flavor of Short Cuts

Handmade Bánh canh in Cambodia

As my second trip to Cambodia approached, I craved noodles for breakfast. I’d gone there the first time to interview Chantha, a successful social entrepreneur and 50-something survivor of the wars and revolutions that cut short the carefree part of her childhood before she was ten years old. We were planning to co-write her memoir. But in interviews, the stories came with difficulty, and through many tears.

Sharing meals loosened her memories, especially during our early-morning soup stops on roadtrips together. I came to love those pit stops. We slurped fat noodles and sweet iced coffee while memories of breakfasts with her parents in Battambang in the 1960s percolated to the surface—same damn dish every day, she grinned. “I didn’t like the Chinese noodle soup,” she said, “but I was a child. I had no choice.” Now, that same damn soup conjures school mornings with her mom.

By age 24, Chantha’s entire family was gone. Alone in communist Saigon, she eked by on rations, then spent the next decade in Thai refugee camps, boiling skeletal chickens over jury-rigged kerosene burners. What sustained her through the years of narrowed hope and meager fare was the memory of sumptuous dishes her mother taught her to prepare. She returned to ruined Cambodia and scraped out a new life with her young family—in part, by reviving her mom’s recipes.

On my second visit, I figured, more research was needed—often (I hoped) in the form of noodles. I stayed at Chantha’s house this time, and her history unfurled in the steam and aromas of resurrected recipes. My favorite: bánh canh, a thick Vietnamese soup with noodles made from rice flour.

Late one morning, as dust and moto noise streams into her kitchen from a busy Phnom Penh street, she teaches me to make the dough. “You need strong hands,” she says, adding hot water to the squeaky flour and letting me mash it with my fingers.

The way her mother made it, she explains, was much more labor-intensive. “Now I make it faster, so less special,” says Chantha, as she pats the dough into ovals and instructs me to cut it into thick noodles with scissors. “My mother would never—“ she adds, shaking her head.

We are doing it wrong. Her mother consumed a whole day in this process, rolling each noodle by hand into a perfect cylinder—no scissors allowed. To Chantha’s mom, the best dishes were the ones that required the most effort, and she despised the flavor of short cuts.

Chantha chops up a chicken, sautés it with garlic, and makes a broth, then adds the noodles—which thicken the soup to a glutinous creaminess. We top with fried garlic, chopped scallions, cilantro, black pepper, fire-red chili, and fried dough from a street vendor. In ecstasies, I slurp down one, then another bowlful. Eating takes a fraction of the time spent cooking.

I don’t know many people back home who would consider making fresh noodles, by any method, an easy way out. To me, the soup is splendid; it tastes of Chantha’s careful handiwork and her great affection for the people she feeds.

I write down the recipe in my notes under the heading, “Bánh canh: How (and WHY) to make it”—to remind me, once I get home, that making something as perfect as you can, as an act of love, is generally worth the effort.

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