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In her riveting, gut-wrenching memoir, author Chantha Nguon relates how she fled from Cambodia to Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1970 when she was 9 years old. Nguon was the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a Khmer man. Because of burgeoning discrimination against Vietnamese people living in Cambodia, she and her family began to feel at risk, so they became refugees.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge under the dictator Pol Pot claimed that the Cambodian people had no history or culture. Pol Pot invented the phrase “Year Zero” to describe the birth of a new revolutionary society, an “Agrarian Paradise.” Nguon’s biting commentary, which employs metaphorical recipes, details the results: Pol Pot “mixed together some borrowed ideologies and added his own genocidal flavor; his cadres freed us from the burdens of pâté de foie and soup noodles, and also education, medicine, cinema, books, money, cars, and religion. In return, Cambodians won the right to dig canals and harvest rice, to starve and be executed.”

In the 14 years Nguon lived in Saigon, she never felt at home, faced hunger and hardship, and endured the propaganda and restrictions imposed on society by the Communists who overtook the country. The fallout? “At political meetings, they cried into their megaphones about past-life indulgences that must be disavowed: Down with the old ballads; up with fervid songs of blood and sacrifice. Down with pâté and pastries; up with watery rice mush cut with cassava. Everything mushed together in one pot. It tasted like a gray nothing.”

When Nguon fled Saigon, she and her partner Chan made several attempts to reach a refugee camp in Thailand. When they finally succeeded, they were euphoric, believing that their future would now unfold smoothly. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

For more than a decade in various refugee camps, Nguon survived doing different jobs—as a cook in a brothel, a suture nurse in a camp medical clinic, a tofu maker, and a silk weaver. Along the way, she witnessed brutality against women trapped in the sex trade, and she experienced near starvation and several life-threatening encounters.

Nguon and Chan, along with a myriad of other Cambodian nationals, were eventually repatriated to Cambodia. There the couple employed their newfound skills and knowledge to found the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center in rural Cambodia, where they helped women rise out of poverty, the sex trade, and illiteracy.

In her work with the women, Nguon showed them how she had adopted her mother’s “Slow Noodles” kitchen philosophy and how she had translated it into an approach to life: “I learned that the best dishes require extra time and patience to prepare. Later, I discovered that the path from hunger and poverty to economic self-reliance is long and hard, if it is even possible. And I see now that rebuilding a traumatized society after genocide takes many generations of investment—there are no quick fixes. That’s what Slow Noodles means to me.”

In this memoir, which includes 20 family recipes, Nguon shows that despite the trauma she experienced and all that she lost, no one could take away her happy childhood memories and the treasure trove of recipes her mother used to create savory food in a generous and loving home. (Algonquin Books)

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