One of my favorite songs is James Taylor’s “Carolina on My Mind”. Though I’m not from Carolina, the song reflects a universal feeling of being homesick, when one is far away from the place where fond memories were made, where you were among people who shaped you, and where everything seemed familiar.
While I love being in Cambodia, there is a part of me that is feeling a bit homesick. This feeling seems to grow stronger as the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are approaching. Growing up in the U.S. we never really celebrated these holidays in the traditional American way. We didn’t have turkey, ham or mashed potatoes but Yao Hon or Cambodian Hot Pot, a meal composed of a savory broth, assortment of meat and vegetables and nom banh chok (thin rice noodles).
A few days before these holidays my mother would buy the ingredients at the local Safeway, which would consist of bok choy, spinach, watercress, and an assortment of beef and seafood (shrimp, salmon, tuna, and squid). She would buy the thin dried rice noodles at the Korean market.
Similar to cooking a turkey, it would take her hours to prepare the food; from washing the vegetables, cutting the meat, cooking and batching the noodles, to simmering the broth. In my mother's version, the savory broth consisted of crab paste, shrimp paste, coconut milk, rice vinegar, fish sauce, chicken broth, and sugar. She would mix the broth ingredients together and let it cook for an hour or two.
While the women were preparing the food, the men would help rearrange the furniture in the living room to make room for the big spread. Couches and tables were moved to the side, plastic tablecloths were spread out on the floor, and plates, bowls and chopsticks were set on top.
Once it was ready, the electric pan was always situated in the center of the floor in front of a wide screen TV. Then the food came out; a plate of fresh vegetables, raw meat, batches of noodles, and the centerpiece, the broth, placed into the pan.
We would convene around the hot pot and sit on the floor in a circle the traditional Khmer way, women’s legs to the side and men’s legs crossed. We waited until the broth simmered to a slight boil. Everyone had a bowl of noodles in their lap and waited for their turn to receive the food from the head chef, my sister. She would put in the various meats first, then after a while, the vegetables. The steam of the broth made the house smell like an aromatic sauna.
As we anxiously waited for our food to cook, the focus of conversation usually revolved around the activity of cooking and eating, teaching newcomers the right way to eat Yao Haun and teasing those who couldn’t use chopsticks correctly. We watched American football games and debated as to who would go to the Super Bowl that year. We always cheered for the Washington Redskins since they were our home team.
After the main course my mom would serve my favorite dessert, Banh Chanoeuk--Glutinous Rice Mung Bean Dessert covered in creamy coconut milk topped with sesame seeds. Once dinner was over, my father would usually make a big speech, reminding us of our journey to this country, the tragedy of war, the loss of loved ones, how fortunate we are to be in the U.S., the importance of an education, and to take care of each other. He would end the speech by praying (bonn) for his family to blessed with good health, good jobs, and a good family.
Every year he would make that speech, he would always cry, prompting everyone around him to cry. He was never scared to show his emotions when it came to talking about his family. Though we rarely had turkey or ham for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we always had love, laughter and good conversation around hotpot. With my dad gone and my mother and I in Cambodia, this is the first year in my family’s history that we will not be together for either of these holidays. This year, there will be no hot pot or big speech.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approaches, I am reminded of the long distance that stands between my home, my family and all the things that were once familiar. When Thanksgiving arrives next week, my family and I will go to a place in Phnom Penh where we can have hot pot. For a moment I will close my eyes and think back to a time when life seemed simpler, when we had the joy of food bringing us together and how we recreated our own traditions in the U.S.
I can almost smell the aromatic broth of hot pot waiting for me, the sweetness of the banh chanoeuk, the sound of football playing on the TV in the background, the voice of my father making the big speech, and just for a moment, I am back home.