"I escaped the Khmer Rouge when I was 12 years old, after surviving year round starvation and harsh labor camps. My two older brothers fled first in 1976, followed by my father and younger brother in 1978. With the help of UNICEF, my mother, sister and I escaped to the U.S. in 1979. We reunited with my two oldest brothers, but I never saw my father or younger brother again."
And so begins my interview with Channy Laux, owner of Apsara Foods,* a Cambodian condiment company based in Fremont, CA. Channy is noticeably upset as she recounts the horrors of her childhood, but she doesn't focus on them, nor do the memories motivate her efforts. As a senior staff systems engineer, her days are filled with math and science, but on nights and weekends the passion to honor her mother is kept alive thru an authentic recreation of the prized seasonings and sauces of her childhood.
"My mother was a cook in life ? that's what she was known for and what she did with pride. When she passed in 2010, I realized I didn't even have a picture of her in the kitchen. I wanted to honor her life long commitment and her work."
Channy cooked me up three Cambodian dishes ? Fish Amok, Pineapple Soup and Beef Brochettes. The soup was divine, seasoned with Red Lemongrass Paste, the beef was marinated in Green Lemongrass Paste before skewered and perfectly grilled. The Amok was a more complicated dish, a mix of coconut milk, Red Lemongrass Paste and egg into a custard base for kale and white fish.
"Many Bay Area Cambodian restaurants are more Thai-like in their approach. Apsara is less sweet; more authentic."
Fish sauce, lemongrass, thai chiles, galangal, kaffir lime, anchovy, turmeric and tamarind - classic seasonings, many that grow around Cambodian homes - make up the Apsara flavor profile. The anchovy really bumps up the umami, that savory, full flavored, unctuousness often missing in vegetable dishes. We talk about this in my book, Cool Cuisine. Reduce your meat consumption (better for people and planet), but keep the rich flavors using meats or fish pastes as a condiment instead of the main dish.
Beyond all these deep flavors however? I am still picking up something more?..
Macrobiotics teaches us that the energy of the food goes into the cook and the energy of the cook goes into the food. When I open up a lemongrass paste and add it to the coconut milk, I swear I feel Channy (and mom Chheng Ly's) bottled passion and freedom of spirit release into the food and nourish my soul.
I slurp up my coconut rice noodles and veggies, while the words play over and over in my head?
Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we are free at last.
Red Lemongrass Coconut Sauce
Add ½ jar of Apsara Cambodian Red Lemongrass Paste to a heated pan. Sauté for a minute. Add 1 can coconut milk and stir. Simmer 5-10 minutes to reduce sauce. If not thick enough, keep reducing, or mix in 1 teaspoon of arrowroot or cornstarch diluted in 1 tablespoon water or stock. Pour over noodles or grains. Top with sautéed seasonal veggies.
*Apsara are supernatural royal female dancers from Buddhist mythology.
Fish Amok banana leaf bowls
Baked and out of the bowl
I didn't know anything about the history, so during our interview I asked the basic question; "Why was the Khmer Rouge after you guys, Channy? What was their problem?"
This is her answer.
Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Cambodia, they took over Cambodia from April 1975 - January 1979. Under Khmer Rouge, Cambodians died from either starvation or execution. Most people they executed were intellectual, business owners, and formal regime soldiers. Since my dad was a businessman, we were targeted for execution or to be "re-educated," using their term. They took me away from my family to work in labor camps, far away from any civilization in poor conditions and without enough food to eat. Everyday I prayed to see my mother and father, my sister and brothers just one more time. It was not the fear of death that drove my family to flee, it was the need to be free from emotional and physical tortures. My parent's biggest fear was the gloomy future. It would be a life without the freedom to speak, travel, learn, explore, cook our own meals, pick our partner, or the fear of having a child and then have them taken away. So our parents told us, "Whenever you get a chance to leave, to be free, take it and never look back. Never regret."