After fleeing the Khmer Rouge in 1975, writer-photographer Deana Saukam’s family never went back to Cambodia. Recently, she made the journey herself.
On my first trip to Cambodia, I was greeted at the airport as though I was coming home: When I landed in Phnom Penh I was handed a permanent residency visa instead of the usual 30-day tourist pass. They must have recognized my name.
My grandfather, Saukam Khoy, was the last president of Cambodia before the country fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Both of my parents were able to escape to America and Europe, along with much of my father’s side of the family. But my mother’s side wasn’t as lucky—her father and three of her brothers were executed in the camps during the mass genocide of more than 2 million Cambodians. When the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror ended, my parents were able to bring surviving family members to America. And by 1982, the year I was born, the Saukams were comfortably settled in Houston. There were none of us left in Cambodia.
My parents didn’t often talk about the country they’d left behind, but they did their best to keep us connected to it. I was raised bilingual, and on Buddhist holidays we went to wat (temple). When we weren’t out eating fajitas, we’d stay home and my mother would cook dishes like kaw sach chrouk, a sweet and salty pork stew, or babaw mouan, a comforting rice porridge. When I started musing about a family trip to Cambodia, they deflected the idea. Finally, when I was 32, they agreed. But then, just before we were set to leave, my mother suddenly became ill. She died a short time later.
When I lost my mom, I also lost her cooking—the most tangible connection I had to a culture I’d known only secondhand. My father backed out of the trip—it was simply too painful for him. But for me, the idea took on a new dimension. Instead of experiencing Cambodia through my parents, I would discover it through my own lens. That’s how, more than 40 years after my family fled the country and never looked back, I found my feet firmly planted on Cambodian soil.
Traveling around Cambodia for two months, I learned that the country’s cooking is incredibly diverse—a rich tapestry of Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French colonial influences. Growing up, I vividly remember the intense smell of prahok that would permeate our house after my mother opened a jar in the kitchen. I learned to appreciate that the same fermented mudfish paste that would send me running to my room as a kid adds depth to a variety of Cambodian dishes. On a motorbike ride through Battambang’s countryside, the hub of prahok production, I encountered massive beds of mudfish drying in the sun. It was the first time I understood how much of Cambodia’s cuisine is structured around foundational flavors that include, in addition to prahok, the potent fish sauce known as tuk trey and kroeung, a lemongrass-scented curry paste. But there was so much more to learn.
On a humid afternoon in Phnom Penh, I went on a quest to find kanom krok, rice flour–coconut cakes, prepared over charcoal burners. Friends took me to Boeung Keng Kang, a crowded market where I watched as a group of women furiously ladled, stirred, flipped, and scooped the crispy round treats and topped them with fish sauce, coconut milk, and chile paste. I burned my tongue devouring them before quickly placing an order for more. About three hours from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia’s southern coast, I explored the crab markets of Kep, where customers select live crabs directly from bamboo baskets on a crowded pier. I picked out a few with Jay Scaife, chef at the nearby Knai Bang Chatt resort, and we brought them back to the hotel to make kdam chha mrich kchei—crab stir-fried with fresh green peppercorns.
From the back of a scooter along the winding road to Hong Hav II, a small noodle shop about an hour outside Siem Reap, I tried to take it all in—I wanted to remember the sight of those women leading ox-pulled carts along dirt pathways, the water buffalo roaming through rice paddies. When I arrived, the noodle shop was at once familiar and deeply foreign. I was there to learn how to make kuy teav, the traditional Cambodian breakfast soup loaded with dried shrimp, sliced pork, fish cakes, fried garlic, and more. The aroma of long-simmered pork broth had been a source of comfort since childhood, but here the steaming bowl of kuy teav was also something exciting and new. As I slurped, someone flicked on a TV, and I heard the opening theme of Ghostbusters playing in the background. And just like that, I was in my living room in 1980s Houston, eating my mother’s soup in my pajamas. I was home.