Saturday, April 07, 2007

Khmer takeaway

For three years I co-hosted a Magic of Cambodia day here in the UK, promoting Cambodia as a great destination and revelling in all-things Khmer for 1 day a year. It was a great success and amongst the successful ingredients was the Khmer food we laid on. That food was provided by a Khmer takeaway restaurant in Oxford called AK-City, so I was pleased to see an article in today's Guardian newspaper, all about AK-City. The restaurant is run by Steven and Lin Chung, at Cowley Road, Oxford (tel.01865 243028), and their signature dish is chilli and sweet basil, stir-fried with chicken at £4.15. Here's the article:

The world in a box
Steven: My grandfather is from China. He went to Vietnam and crossed over to Cambodia. I was born in Phnom Penh in 1957. I was there when the Americans were carpet-bombing in the early 70s. At night, we'd hear the noise of the bombing far outside the city. I remember the last few occasions it was very close and the whole house was shaking. That's when my father decided some of us had to go. I was sent away to school in Thailand. My parents stayed through the time of Pol Pot. Since I left, I've lost them both. We had no contact, nothing. I know that my father passed away - how, I don't know. A friend of mine from Cambodia, his auntie in Hong Kong, knows exactly what happened to my father. I keep saying one of these days I need to make a trip to Hong Kong to see her. I want to know, but it's hard for me ... Sometimes I feel guilt because of what he went through and I didn't.
My wife Lin was born in Phnom Penh, though her family is from China, too. We grew up together - the two families were neighbours. Years later, when I was working in England, I heard from a relative that there was a family in Cambodia asking about me. I knew immediately that it was them. I decided to find them. That was 1994 - I hadn't been back for 14 years. I found Lin, her mother and her sister. We married in 1995. I didn't expect that, it just happened that way.
Did you see The Killing Fields? It cannot show everything - it was much worse than that. Lin's family died of sickness and starvation, one by one - eight of them in the family, three of them left. My family was 10, and so far as I know there's only me, my sister in Australia and my brother in Japan left.
After 1975 it was really bad. Everybody was sent out of the city by the Khmer Rouge into the forests to get the land growing. If you refused to go, you would be gunned down on the spot. Some got killed just because they were educated. Anybody who spoke a foreign language had to be killed.
For me, life has just been a matter of change, going from place to place. My wife has been through so much more. She nearly got killed once just for stealing some potatoes; everybody had to do that - if you didn't, you would more than likely die of hunger. You worked from five o'clock until about three or four in the afternoon, and then they gave you one spoonful of rice with a lot of water in it. It was like that all the time up to 1979. Things got a bit better when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.
Lin: I think two months longer and I would have died, too. My hand was injured from a poisonous thorn. I couldn't walk, I was too weak. The Vietnamese came and they sent me to hospital. That's why I'm alive.
Steven: The main thing about being in this country is that you are free and at peace. You can do anything. You make a little money, you enjoy yourself, nobody bothers you. We have three children: Jenny is 10, David is eight and James is five. Jenny and David are both musical. They started violin nearly two years ago and this autumn they are taking their grade five.
Lin: My mother came by herself to Cambodia from China during the second world war. She was seven. She survived, she lived through everything that has happened in Cambodia, and now she is here with us in Oxford. She is very strong.
Steven: Physically strong and mentally strong. She likes the summer here. She loves flowers - she's never seen so many flowers. She's a good cook, too. I like cooking. My father was a chef in Cambodia - he cooked for weddings and receptions for friends and neighbours. My training was as a cobbler, but when I came over here in 1980, shoe factories were closing down; it was the wrong moment to be a shoe-maker. That's why I ended up cooking - first at a French restaurant in Covent Garden. I seemed to pick it up quite quickly, and then, when you see people enjoying their food, it becomes a passion.
I'd love to turn this place into a restaurant. A lot of my customers are students - a group of them like to come out and have a meal. In Cambodian cooking, you use lemon grass. Also coriander, galangal, turmeric. Quite a bit of the cooking probably came over from India. There have always been a lot of Indians in Cambodia. They come to trade. Angkor Wat was built by an Indian merchant more than 1,000 years ago [note: historically inaccurate]. Somebody from the East Oxford Action group painted a mural of Angkor Wat on the side of our building because before that people kept spraying graffiti. They don't any more. The name AK City is short for Angkor.

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