My mother is a great cook, amazing even. With 4 children and a husband to take care of, she still finds time to work her growing business, make great meals and never misses All My Children. This was a nearly 20 years ago, now she’s older and works here and there, her 4 kids have grown up (mostly) but now she’s addicted to reality TV like American Idol or The Bachelor. I’ve always looked to my Mother for my culinary “chops”, I’ve learned a lot from her by simply watching or having been put to work grinding, chopping and stirring elements as she multi-tasked about. Now that I have experience cooking the family Sunday dinners, I realized how hard it can be, making a few different dishes to everyone’s taste and current dietary obsession.
I’m learning to do things the way she does, a big dish and let everyone help themselves. I remember mornings of steaming hot broth for noodle soup with every fixing ready and all I had to do was assemble and eat. Cauldrons of curry with french bread warmed in the oven ready to be torn apart, dipped and savored. Crispy banh xeo hot off the stove top covered in foil, waiting for the crowd to cover with tuk try pa’am and fresh herbs before shoving greedily into our faces with chopsticks. Peppery egg-rolls filled with pork, shrimp and vermicelli noodles, fried to order and always saving a few in the freezer for a another day, but they never made it that far. Fresh batches of Tuk Trey Pa’am (sweeten fish sauce) ready to pour into saved glass jars and refrigerated for Cha Khuyteav.
Cha Khuyteav… cha meaning to saute and khuyteav are rice noodles, always in our pantry no matter what day it is. Sometimes when she didn’t necessarily feel like cooking an elaborate meal, she’d take those Khuyteav, soak in hot water until they were pliable and sautéed in oil, green onions and pureed garlic with bean sprouts until tender and fragrant. She’d leave that big pot of noodles out; lightly sear a steak and slice it ever so thinly; crushed peanuts and washing extra herbs and bean sprouts before pulling out her huge jar of tuk trey pa’am. Leaving it all on the table as the kids wonder in and out, grabbing bowls and wolfed the noodles down before continuing on with whatever activities we had that day. My mother always, in the living room with her knitting needles and working on a project that never seemed to end and shouting that food was on the table and to take care of ourselves.
I miss that sometimes, when it was all of us together, the 3 bedroom house over-stuffed with possessions and too many people to hold in its walls. Now we live in a townhouse, with just enough room for my parents, baby brother and myself. My sister is newly married and living with her husband, my other brother in school 3 hours away and rarely comes home. It’s cozy still and my Mother breathes a sigh of relief because she no longer has to cook for so many people, especially since the baby brother is working on building his body and only eats baked chicken breasts with salad and I, always wanting to try some new recipe has since taken over the kitchen although my father still craves my mother’s cooking.
This past Sunday morning, a soft knock comes to my door asking if I’m awake. My mother needs help in the kitchen, I pulled my body away from sleep and stumble down the stairs. The kitchen table weighed down with all the fixing for Cha Khuyteav and my heart is happy. She has the noodles sitting in hot water, softening up as she washes and drains the bean sprouts. I happily start chopping the garlic into minuscule pieces as the wok heats up with olive oil. As it starts to smoke, I quickly drain the noodles and add them to the wok, working quickly with confident flicks of the wrist using large cooking chopsticks the way my Mother has taught me. I coated each rice noodle strand with oil, keeping them separated as they cook, my mother adds the bean sprouts and green onions before turning her attention to the steak. Seasoning simply with salt and pepper she quickly sears it on a pan next to me. The oil from my wok popping gently as we both worked quietly, the sound of my father’s football game in the background. I held up strands for her to taste, taking a few and twirling them in the air to cool, she puts them in her mouth and chews critically. One more minute she announces, and it will be perfect. She pulls her steak off the pan and sets it aside, pulling out a glass baking pan for me to transfer the noodles to. A large surface so the noodles can cool correctly and not over-cook in its own steam. She slices the beef thinly, revealing the lovely pink center as I reach over and snatch a few pieces for my mouth, just like when I was young, she shakes her head and tells me to get the tuk trey pa’am out of the refrigerator.
Tuk Trey Pa’am.. tuk means water, trey means fish and pa’am means sweet. Our version of nuoc cham, fish sauce that is diluted with a bit of water, adding garlic, lime juice, sugar, and chilies for a vinaigrette of sorts. Perfect for noodle or rice dishes that needed that salty kick. I joked with my mother about blogging her recipe for tuk trey pa’am and she turns to me in horror. I am never allowed to divulge how she makes her incredible recipe, quoting “they can look it up on the internet”. It made me laugh and I apologize to everyone for not being able to share exactly how it’s done but I can tell you what she adds that most don’t… shredded carrots.. shhhh secret!
With all the components ready, she sets it out on the table and helps her self to a bowl, a bit of noodles at the bottom, lots of bean sprouts, a bit of meat, a small ladle full of tuk trey pa’am and a spoonful of chili garlic sauce. Mixing it all up with chopsticks before walking towards the living room to let my Daddy know it was ready to eat. I fix my personal bowl. Lots of noodles, equal parts bean sprouts and beef, 2 ladles of tuk trey pa’am, lots of crushed peanuts and chili garlic sauce. It was a spur of the moment dish, there were a few herbs missing in this version that would send this dish to the moon. Fresh mint and thai basil are also staples as well as a thin omelet cut into strips as thin as noodles, all of that mixed together and it’s literally my childhood in a bowl.
It’s funny how much food holds such powerful memories of my family for me, it’s the main connection to my Mother for me and one I’m eternally grateful for having. She continues to teach me recipes to this day while my father sits in the background joking that maybe with my skills, I’ll catch a Cambodian man because he’s secretly pining away for grandchildren. Think he’ll have to ask my sister and her husband for those. 😉
I know what you’re thinking, there isn’t any recipe here! Well there is a method jumbled in all that rambling, and note, if you’re going to make the tuk trey sauce I linked, don’t add peanuts until you’re about to eat it. If you do want to make a big batch for storage, add everything together, store in an impeccably clean glass jar in the refrigerator, lasts forever, peanuts are optional when ready to eat.
Preah Kun Madai (Gratitude I Have for my Mother)