Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Slow Noodles

Slow Noodles by Chantha Nguon
  Slow Noodles:  A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes
Author:  Chantha Nguon with Kim Green
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2024. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643753495 / 978-1643753492

Rating:   ★★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1975, the Khmer Rouge informed the Cambodian people that we had no history, but we knew it was a lie."

Favorite Quote:  "A refugee must learn to be anything  people want her to be at any given moment. But behind the masks, I am only myself - a mosaic of flavors from near and far."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The book poses a question. "When you must flee and can carry only one thing, what will it be? What single seed from your old life will be the most useful in helping you sow a new one?" That is the unimaginable choice faced by those flee or are forced to leave their home and their very lives. Time and time again, history describes such events. News stories today are full of them. Can anyone who has not lived it even come close to imagining it? I think not. That makes books such as this one so important. They offer a glimpse into a reality hopefully we are fortunate enough never to inhabit. It also offers an understanding of those who are flung into a refugee life. It offers lessons, perhaps, of how history seems to end up here over and over again despite each horror being followed by promises that it must never happen again. These memoirs bear witness.

In the 1970s, almost two million Cambodians died due to the policies and program of the Khmer Rouge regime. A genocide of almost two million!

The author, Chantha Nguon, survived. This is her story. "But the past never goes away. The fear and pain are still there, buried in our brains like mines. It is better to defuse them than to leave them entombed, quietly, waiting for a single misstep. That is why I am telling my story."

The facts of the book - the losses of this one individual, the time span, the history, the desperation, the risks - are moving. They are all the more so for the calm manner in which the narrative is related. Occasionally, I find myself stopping and re-reading a sentence over and over again to let the enormity of it sink in. This history of loss is measured in not days, weeks, months, or even years. It is over a decade! "Of course, I should have had more faith in impossible futures. After all, we'd already endured a series of them, each more unimaginable an unforeseen than the last."

What makes this memoir even more gripping is its anchor in food memories. "The dishes I loved best when I was small were the ones that took the longest to make. My puppy sense told me that time equaled loved, and love equaled deliciousness. On the time continuum, instant noodles tasted careless, like nothing at all; the kuy teav noodle maker's hand-cut mee were far superior. But the slowest and best noodles of all came from my mother's kitchen." Throughout the book, you find recipes. Some are for the dishes of the time and place. Some are conceptual as the "recipe" in the book description. Food memories is something we all share. A smell or a taste brings us to a time and place. The relatable memories bring the story closer to us. Although we may never comprehend the enormity of it, in some small way, we can understand a small piece.

The book ends on a note of hope. "But if there's one thing I learned from my mother, it's that losing everything is not the end of the story. She taught me that lost civilizations can be rebuilt from zero, even if the task will require many generations of work." Perhaps, there is hope yet as conflicts and genocides continue across the world today. Perhaps.

About the Book

A haunting and beautiful memoir from a Cambodian refugee who lost her country and her family during Pol Pot's genocide in the 1970s but who finds hope by reclaiming the recipes she tasted in her mother's kitchen.


Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Subtract a reliable source of food, life savings, and family members, until all are gone. Shave down childhood dreams for approximately two decades, until only subsistence remains.

In Slow Noodles, Chantha Nguon recounts her life as a Cambodian refugee who loses everything and everyone—her home, her family, her country—all but the remembered tastes and aromas of her mother’s kitchen. She summons the quiet rhythms of 1960s Battambang, her provincial hometown, before the dictator Pol Pot tore her country apart and killed more than a million Cambodians, many of them ethnic Vietnamese like Nguon and her family. Then, as an immigrant in Saigon, Nguon loses her mother, brothers, and sister and eventually flees to a refugee camp in Thailand. For two decades in exile, she survives by cooking in a brothel, serving drinks in a nightclub, making and selling street food, becoming a suture nurse, and weaving silk.

Nguon’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through in this lyrical memoir that includes more than twenty family recipes such as sour chicken-lime soup, green papaya pickles, and pâté de foie, as well as Khmer curries, stir-fries, and handmade bánh canh noodles. Through it all, re-creating the dishes from her childhood becomes an act of resistance, of reclaiming her place in the world, of upholding the values the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy, and of honoring the memory of her beloved mother, whose “slow noodles” approach to healing and cooking prioritized time and care over expediency.

Slow Noodles is an inspiring testament to the power of food to keep alive a refugee’s connection to her past and spark hope for a beautiful life.

About the Author

Chantha Nguon was born in Cambodia and spent two decades as a refugee, until she was finally able to return to her homeland. She is the co-founder,of the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, a social enterprise that offers a living wage, education, and social services to women and their families in rural northeastern Cambodia. A frequent public speaker, she has appeared at universities and on radio and TV news programs, including NPR’s Morning Edition. She cooks often for friends, family, and for private events. An excerpt from Slow Noodles in Hippocampus was named a Longreads Best Personal Essay in 2021.

Kim Green is an award-winning writer and public radio producer and contributor based in Nashville. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, the New York Times, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Marketplace, and The New Yorker Radio Hour. A licensed pilot, she was formerly a flight instructor.

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