Last summer, Chantha Nguon brought Cambodian cooking techniques and stories of refugee life into Nashville home kitchens.
by Kim Green
“You see?” said Chantha Nguon, holding up a spring roll packed with shrimp, noodles, and herbs. A tableful of women in a south Nashville kitchen cheered. “Wow! I did it!” cried a blonde in a cowboy hat, holding up her roll. As the students bit into their work, Nguon filled the silence with stories of food and heartbreak.
Nguon, a 57-year-old Cambodian survivor and social entrepreneur, is often asked to share her bitter history: after fleeing civil war in Cambodia and then, communist Saigon, she spent a decade in refugee camps, hoping for sanctuary in the West. That dream never materialized. Instead, Nguon went home to devastated Cambodia, started a family, and created the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC), a silk-weaving social enterprise in a remote province. SWDC’s hand-woven silk scarves sell worldwide under the “Mekong Blue” name. Nguon, as the brand’s public face, often speaks about how her own experience of poverty and hunger informs her work with rural Cambodian women.
I met her seven years ago while writing a magazine story about Nguon and Ann Walling, a Nashville philanthropist and founding donor to SWDC. Walling later hired me to write Nguon’s memoir. But Nguon was hesitant; she didn’t want to dwell on past tragedies. “Anyway, who will care about some woman called ‘Chantha’?” she asked me one night, in a village surrounded by rice fields.
Last summer, dozens of eager cooking students answered Nguon’s question: WE will care. Nguon was in town for her daughter’s graduation from Sewanee, a Tennessee university, and to fact-check my draft of her memoir. Working title: Slow Noodles, her life story told through remembered meals and recipes. Those were the terms she set that village night: the book would pay tribute to her lost family by recalling her mother’s purest expression of love—meals prepared the “slow noodles” way, with extra time and care.
In June and July, Nguon shared her mother’s favorite dishes in a dozen cooking classes hosted in home kitchens. People came for the food, curious about Cambodian cooking. They stayed for the stories. In my garden one night, ten eaters slurped silky green curry, their faces rapt as Nguon described meals her mother scraped together from meager Saigon rations. “Thank you,” said an engineer visiting from Boston, warmed by curry and wonderment. “I feel lucky to have been here.”