Before you make Makara Meng's Cambodian curry soup, you need to know how it got to these pages. The story starts when she was four years old and communist Khmer Rouge soldiers invaded her rural village. They divided her family by age and gender and placed them in separate labor camps, never to see each other again. In her camp, soldiers forced Makara and the other kids to wake at 5 am to weed the rice fields. At noon, they were given their meal of the day: a bowl of water containing between five and 20 grains of rice, depending on how well they behaved. Makara broke all sorts of rules, hiding foraged guavas in the waist of her pants and attempting to escape to see her mother. For this, once a soldier spent the evening kicking Makara, tied to a rope, like she was a football, and pulling her back. Years into this horror, a bomb blast created sudden chaos in camp. Makara remembers even the soldiers screaming, and her five- or six-year-old self just standing there, waiting for someone to rescue her.
COLORFUL BOUNTY Curry ingredients await preparation.
"Makara? Is that you?" Came a voice. Makara was a bunch of child's bones, barely held together by skin, unrecognizable to her own mother. The two escaped through the jungle and lived in refugee camps. One day someone at the camp told them they were being sent to Boston to resettle. Their plane landed in January 1984. Makara and her mother were wearing flip-flops and rags. A guy named Bill helped them find proper clothes for the Boston winter, and taught Makara about something called a toothbrush. Because copper was a prized metal in Cambodia, when Makara's mother first held a penny, she thought she had become instantly rich. Life in America wouldn't be that easy. Makara learned how to go to school and speak English, how to run a sewing business, get married, have kids, get divorced. She learned how to move past the news that her kids were autistic, and that buying a vegetable farm in Florida had been a bad idea. She moved to Maine to be with a friend, got remarried, had two more kids, and bought a store.
It was there that Makara told me this story, in — as a very strange God would have it — the rice aisle. Because it's what I do, I asked her if she would teach me a dish from her homeland. This Cambodian curry is a dish she and her mother made in her childhood before all that hell broke loose. Today the two of them make it, still together, in South Portland for family birthday parties. It's bone-in chicken pieces, eggplant, sweet potato, green beans, and onion wedges all wading in a thick red sauce. The key ingredient is homemade curry paste Makara makes with fresh ingredients from her store: dried mild red chili peppers, fresh birds-eye chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, salt, sugar, and fresh kaffir lime leaves. You cook this red curry paste with coconut milk, add the chicken, and then, once the chicken is cooked, add the vegetables. You serve it with baguette or super-thin noodles to help soak up the sauce, and a mountain of fresh, raw garnishes on top: bean sprouts, cucumbers, mint leaves, strips of green papaya, and purple banana flowers.