Love, War and Slow Noodles: How Chantha Nguon Survived the Khmer Rouge | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 810
May 2, 2024

Love, War and Slow Noodles: How Chantha Nguon Survived the Khmer Rouge

Love, War and Slow Noodles: How Chantha Nguon Survived the Khmer Rouge

Chantha Nguon, co-author of “Slow Noodles,” shares her story of survival as a Cambodian refugee. Also this week: We learn about the world’s first fast-food chain from Kansas City reporter Mackenzie Martin, and Alex Aïnouz ranks the best pastas at the grocery store.

Questions in this episode:

"What are some recipe suggestions for wild ramps?"

"Can you help break down what common baking terms (like crumb, texture, reverse cream) mean?"

"I’m trying to perfect my lemon merengue pie recipe, but lately, my merengue keeps shrinking. How can I avoid that?"

Screen Shot 2024 05 02 at 4 43 59 PM

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. In Cambodia, there's a saying, if a father dies, the children eat rice with fish. If a mother dies, the children sleep on a leaf.

Chantha Nguon: It means when the father died, and we still have our mother she always manage. She always do everything she can to provide for her children.

CK: That’s Chantha Nguon author of the new memoir, Slow Noodles. She joins us later to share her story of survival during the Cambodian genocide. But first reporter Mackenzie Martin is here to share the story of the world's first fast food restaurant. It wasn't McDonald's or Burger King. It was White Castle born in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, Mackenzie Martin originally reported the story of White Castle for 99% Invisible and for the KCUR podcast, A People's History of Kansas City. Mackenzie, welcome to Milk Street.

Mackenzie Martin: Thank you so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.

CK: So, before we get into White Castle, we need to resolve the issue of the slider. I thought a slider was like a little tiny burger on a little butter hamburger roll served at, you know functions or parties or whatever. But that's really not what it is. So, what is a slider?

MM: So, this was something that kind of tripped me up at the beginning of this reporting too. But best I can cobble together a slider is not a mini burger, contrary to what many people think it is a burger grilled with raw onions. And it directly ties into our conversation today because that is how Walt Anderson made his burgers.

CK: So, let's go back to the very beginning. How did this get started? And where did it get started?

MM: So, the whole White Castle origin story starts in 1916 with Walt Anderson in Wichita, Kansas. As the legend goes, you know, he's working at this diner, and he's frying all these meatballs as part of his job and he's getting frustrated because they're not frying fast enough. So, he slams them down with a spatula, and he creates the hamburger, or at least what some people claim is the modern hamburger. He adds a bun and that becomes what a lot of people associate that food as today. And so, his hamburgers become very popular. He goes out on his own, and he gets one stand. And then he's got two stands and he's got three stands. So, then he meets Billy Ingram, who is this real estate broker and marketing genius, who kind of turns Walt’s sandwich joints into this real restaurant chain. And at the time, there really isn't a lot of competition. And so, Billy Ingram's plan is to pretty much convince America to eat hamburgers, and it comes down to promising them the same perfect experience every time.

CK: So, one thing you just hinted at was that the burger was not socially acceptable for, you know, the middle or upper class and ground meat when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, I think nobody in their right mind would ever read ground beef again. Yeah, the stories of the rats and everything else in those horrible slaughterhouses in Chicago. So, if you were middle class, you probably wouldn't want to be seen right eating at one of the original Walt Anderson burger joints because that that was beneath you, I guess, because of the bad reputation of burgers and ground meat.

MM: Exactly. And it's actually interesting. I don't know if you ran across this. But in my reporting, I was able to find this article from the local newspaper in Wichita where Walt Anderson was interviewed talking about how he used to see people pull up in limousines and park farther away, and they'd send kids over to get the hamburgers and then the kids would go back to their moms because their moms were too embarrassed to be buying hamburgers at a hamburger stand. And it's kind of impressive that Billy Ingram saw this and thought, this, this is what I want to do next. This is what I think I can really succeed it. I mean, at the time, the founders of White Castle were trying to prove that they were going to stick around like this isn't, this isn't a stand. This isn't something you're taken down at the end of the night. This is going to stay for decades. The white was to signal purity, the castle was to signify strength and permanence. And that's basically White Castle’s pitch to Americans to eat these hamburgers, and it works. It becomes wildly successful. And throughout the 20s they just start rapidly expanding.

CK: One of the things I liked you wrote about is that working there was actually it was two things. There was a lot of specifics about what you looked like and how you're dressed, but also, they got paid reasonably well and also got benefits before most companies gave them to you. But the look yourself over poster, which I looked up, no body odor, correct bad breath, I like that correct bad breath. No flashy jewelry, like no big watches. Fingernails had to be kept neat and clean. So, they wanted to control their image.

MM: It's interesting. It's like they did want to control their employees, and they had very high standards. They expected their employees to be extremely friendly, and nice to customers. It was really supposed to be an experience that you enjoyed. And it's also interesting when they started out, I mean, they expanded rapidly in the 1920s. But still, Billy Ingram prided himself on knowing everyone's name at every location. They bought a plane, and they would travel around to various locations. I mean, they really cared that people were doing a good job and that they were putting out a really good product. It was really important to them that whether you got a hamburger in St. Louis, Missouri, or Omaha, Nebraska, that it tasted exactly the same and that you had the same experience.

CK: Yeah, I saw that note about the plane. So, they the first one opens in 1921. Six years later, they have their own plane. So, the margins at these little hamburger joints had to be pretty good. This wasn't a 3% of restaurant margin to end up buying a plane.

MM: Yeah, I would say they didn't really have any competition at the beginning. And so, it was really easy for them to go in and do their thing in many different cities. They ended up having a stronghold in New York City, maybe around you know, the late 20s. And burgers got really trendy because of White Castle. And of course, we haven't talked about the copycats yet.

CK: Yeah, there was Milwaukee's White Tower. There was Little Kastle with a K in Wichita. And they I guess they want to they won a lawsuit right against some of the copycats.

MM: Yeah, White Tower was probably the most egregious example because they copied it to a T But at the same time, they were also places that just call themselves White Castle.

CK: There were places that just absolutely stole the name outright?

MM: Yeah. And they stole the tagline. So, the White Castle slogan early on was “buying by the sack”. And McDonald's if you look at the early McDonald's locations, you'll see on the marquee “buy them by the bag”,

CK: So, you buy half a dozen burgers, and you go eat them with your kids and whatever.

MM: Yeah, I mean, because they were small, people would just eat lots of them. And it's interesting that that is still a huge part of White Castle culture today.

CK: So White Castle culture today is you go in and eat two or three of them? Or more.

MM: Ooh, I would say people sometimes buy a 10 sack. So I think bigger. (really?) Oh, yeah. People really like to buy them. Are you familiar that people are so passionate about White Castle that they will drive many hours to get them?

CK: I mean, look, I can understand being deeply passionate about food and yeah, I guess I can understand that. Sure.

MM: Well, it's really, it's part of a trip, you know, you get a couple of friends you get in the car, and then you go there you get forty of them. I would say that a lot of White Castle’s fandom is eating as many as you can in one sitting. So yeah, you can get through them pretty quick.

CK: Well, there was that one movie where they finally got there and they ordered 20 each or something. What was the name of that movie again?

MM: It was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

CK: Yeah, yeah.

Film clip: It looks like you guys had some night, huh? I want 30 sliders, five French fries and four large cherry Cokes. I want the same but make mine diet cokes. Chuck.

CK: Wow. So where are we today with White Castle. You said they’re 400 left. But they're not in a lot of states. Right. I mean, for example, Boston. I don't think there's a White Castle.

MM: Yeah, it's predominantly in the Midwest. And then you've got some on the East Coast tons in New York have their headquarters is Columbus, Ohio. But they also have one in Florida and then they have one in Arizona. But they do have a big following in the freezer aisle too. So, you can still get sliders probably at your local grocery store.

CK: There's something extraordinarily American about doing something that's family oriented. That's about excellence, right? And is about something that is inexpensive and for the every man or woman. I mean, the burgers were what 10 or 15 cents originally or something like that

MM: I think it was a nickel at the beginning is a nickel at the very beginning.

CK: Here's the guy selling nickel burgers and cares deeply about, you know, everything from from soup to nuts as it were. And that's that is very appealing, and maybe that's why his effort or their effort to do that over the decades creates the fans right?

MM: Yeah, I totally identify with that. And I think hamburgers came around at this time when people it was more affordable to get cars and then the highway’s being built and people are increasingly on the go, and you can just grab a sack of burgers and you're good. You know, you don't need a utensil, you know, you just go on to where you're going. And it was an exciting time for them to come on the scene. I mean, the hamburger is arguably one of the most American foods. In 1937, the president of the National Restaurant Association, declared that the hamburger was as American as apple pie and coffee. So, this is in 1937. So, we've got, you know, like less than 20 years since White Castle started, but they started with hamburgers being disgusting. And what they did to it was make it this American icon. So, it's an American story about business, but it's also a story about American food.

CK: Makenzie thank you so much a great story about White Castle. And now I'm going to have to run into their frozen food section because there's not a White Castle around me, but I will get some frozen sliders before the week is out to try them out. Thank you.

MM: Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.

CK: That was reporter Mackenzie Martin, you can hear more of her reporting about White Castle on both 99% invisible and the KCUR podcast, A People's History of Kansas City. I'm joined by my co-host, Sara Moulton to answer a few of your cooking questions. Sara is of course the star of Sara’s Weeknight Meals on public television. Her latest book is Home Cooking 101.

Sara Moulton: So, Chris, is there anything you've seen that other people do on TV shows when they're cooking that annoys you? You don't have to name them.

CK: Yeah, I mean, look, let's classify the shows the competition shows, which you know, are inherently sort of interesting. But when you get a basket with foie gras, and blueberry jam and maple syrup or whatever, it just got silly. Then there's the shouting and yelling, you know, Hell's Kitchen kind of thing. I guess the problem with all that, for me is that it's like a reality show, but it's as far from reality as you can possibly get. And so, I just don't find the drama compelling in that. I think something like The Bear. (Yeah) that was good. It felt real. And it had some depth to it and the characters were all well drawn.

SM: Yeah, you know, it's interesting, because I agree with what you just said about the reality shows, they don't seem very real. And they're also very stressful. You know, I worry for everybody as they compete. You know, it's like watching your kid in the kindergarten play, you know, will they remember their lines? Will they be, okay? But for me, you know what my pet peeve is really, as an educator, and it's very specific. I hate it when women wear their hair down when they're cooking. Nobody should wear their hair down in the kitchen. It's such a bad message for the home cook. I know it has

CK: The entire pantheon of food television and this is the thing that really, really gets under your skin?

SM: It does because we have to set an example my feeling is I'm talking about you know, the behind the counter teaching shows. And hair down is like just a no, no. Oh my god. Yes.

CK: Okay. Let's take your call. (Yeah) Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Courtney from Burlington, Vermont.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I am calling because my husband and I went out a couple of weeks ago and picked a whole bunch of ramps, wild leeks, and I've done a few things with them, but I was hoping to get some suggestions aside from like, a tart, or just throwing them in things like eggs and things like that, because they have a pretty delicate flavor.

CK: It's funny two weeks ago, I went out Sunday morning on a hike with one of my kids in Vermont, and we harvested ramps. Same thing you did. (such a great thing). Yeah, I mean, it was great. And it's just you know, they're only available for a short period of time. We don't take too many because we don't want to rip them all out. If you want a flavor that's more interesting than onion, I would just add them with onion or in place of onion as you just said with eggs. I would throw them on a grill. Sheet pan dinner with chicken parts and stuff. Put some of the ramps in the center let that cook down. Chop it up. Take the juices from the chicken add a couple other things make a pan sauce with that would be great and rice or make a risotto with it. Sara?

SM: Yeah, I mean you can also use it in sauces you know, any of those cold sauces that you might make, you know, chop it up really fine, the bulb being slightly stronger than the leaves. And you know, like, you can put it into aioli or a tzatziki. Anywhere you might have put raw garlic, you know, you'd be able to taste it there, or put it into a compound butter. And then, you know, mince it really fine. Put it into some butter with some fresh herbs, whatever you'd like. Whether it be basil or tarragon, or oregano, and then freeze it. And then you'll have it you know, down the road later on when you're just would love to have some ramps again.

CK: You know what I love though, they’re two things: fiddlehead ferns and ramps, because then, you know, winters over (Yeah) It's that first strong taste of something coming out of the ground. It's just a great moment, right?

SM: Yes.

Caller: Well, I love those ideas. I love the tzatziki idea. I love the roasted chicken and risotto. Umm. They're all making my mouth water and now I can't wait for next early spring again.

CK: If you had ramps all year round you’d be sick of them.

SM: They wouldn't be quite so special.

CK: What are we having for dinner ramps, oh no not that again? Courtney thank you so much for calling and good luck with the ramps.

SM: Yes.

Caller: All right. Thank you, guys so much. I appreciate it. It's always great to talk to you.

CK: Take care.

SM: Take care. Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need some inspiration in the kitchen, give us a call anytime. Our number is 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843 or send us an email at questions at Milk Street

SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: Hi there. My name is Lynn and I'm calling from the San Francisco peninsula. How are y'all today?

SM: We are good. How are you?

Caller: I'm loving life and I'm excited to talk to you. I have a few questions all around baking.

SM: All right, well shoot.

Caller: Okay, the thing that ties my questions together is my confusion about terms like crumb and texture and what makes a cake tender versus not tender? And are all these a matter of preference or what does a good baker strive for? And what would I look for in a recipe if I wanted a fine crumb versus not a fine crumb? And is it the ratios of the ingredients? Is it the technique that affects this like reverse creaming or whatever you call the opposite? Or is it the tool whether whisk or flat beaters use? The question that originally sent me down this rabbit hole has to do with the use of butter versus margarine in baking. And I've always used butter hearing that you get a better product and has more flavor and blah blah, but I'm hearing recently that margarine has its place in baking. And if that's true, can I use it interchangeably with butter or can I split it 5050 To get the best of both worlds or I'm befuddled, and I'd love you to set me straight.

CK: The reason margarine is better well, I would never eat margarine, but it's oil essentially. And that oil oil in cakes as we all know like carrot cake will keep it fresher and give you a moister texture so that's why margarine is better quote unquote better than butter. I would not use margarine just use oil. I mean you can substitute Vegetable oil for melted butter in a cake that's why margarine will give you a better texture

SM: but flavor wise (it’s terrible) yeah, you really want to go for butter.

Caller: So, but in a cake like a carrot cake or zucchini cake. (its oil based) other things taking over

CK: There's no problem substituting oil for melted butter in a cake if you want better moisture texture and it lasts longer you could substitute some of the melted butter for it but if you’re creaming butter with sugar to get a lighter texture you can't substitute oil. (yeah).

Caller: Yeah, okay got it.

CK: Reverse creaming is when you take softened butter and mix it with flour that's the first thing you do in a cake recipe. And that protects the flour from gluten development, and you get a softer texture. If you use cake flour, you'll get a finer texture right softer finer texture. So, the method of mixing affects it and the type of flour using affects it and the amount of fat in the recipe also affects and the amount of sugar you know the all those factors. So, in general, reverse creaming will give you a softer texture and in general cake flour will give you a finer texture than all-purpose but there's a million other things going on cake recipes.

Caller: and I looked at some of my favorite cake recipes and they generally don't specify whisk versus flat blade or whatever they just tell you mix them together

CK: Cake batters that you tend to see the flat paddle used for that. Usually, a whisk is there to incorporate a lot of air so if you're eating butter and sugar for example or egg whites or cream you want to incorporate air and the whisk will do that better. The paddle is used to mix ingredients together without incorporating a ton of air. That's the difference. I will say though, you can get away for a whisk for a paddle. You can't use a paddle or whisk as necessary. But if you wanted to mix the batter with a whisk, that's fine. (Okay) I mean, I wouldn't worry about it

Caller: Well, if y'all are ever San Francisco area, I would love to have you for dinner. you comment on how no one wants to have you over? They're afraid to cook for you. I'll cook for you.

CK: I will remember this invitation. Take you up on it.

SM: You’ll be in trouble. Watch out. Okay.

CK: Anyway, take care.

SM: Thank you.

Caller: Thank you so much.

SM: Bye, bye. Welcome to Milk Street. Who is calling?

Caller: This is John in Cupertino, California, the heart of Silicon Valley.

SM: Okay then. Hi, John. How can we help you?

Caller: Well, I've been baking and cooking all my life. I grew up in a farm in Kansas and learned in 4 -H. And I've been spending years to perfect my lemon meringue pie recipe. And lately, I've been having severe problems with the meringue. shrinking and going from three inches down to half an inch within a few hours. And I'm not quite sure what I'm doing differently now.

SM: Well, how many egg whites are you using?

Caller: The recipe calls for three eggs, three yolks for the filling, and three for the meringue. Now I found that never nearly enough. So, I've been supplementing that with this instant egg white, which is simply a dehydrated egg whites for another three or four eggs worth. And maybe that's my problem.

SM: Well, no, also tell me what else you're doing.

Caller: Well, I'm making sure the egg whites are at room temperature. And the mixer is not cold either. Some recipes call for adding this corn starch slurry to it. (Yes) I haven't done that. And I don't know if that is to keep it from shrinking. Perhaps I should try that. Maybe I'm not whipping it enough. I'm not sure.

CK: I have a couple of thoughts. Are you adding sugar to the egg whites when you beat them?

Caller: First, I mix it on low for about a minute to get a little bubbly. And then I drop in about six tablespoons of sugar slowly over about a minute.

CK: Well, that sounds about right. Do you use any cream of tartar or lemon juice?

Caller: A pinch of cream of tartar, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla.

SM: It sounds sort of right.

CK: We should have called you. (yeah) Okay, well that's when you do everything right. I mean sugar is going to help give you the right texture, it's going to help set the whites and the cream of tartar also stabilizes them to help set the structure. So to what point are you whipping these insert a two inch peak is how do you know when the egg whites are done?

Caller: When it's a pretty stiff peak. But maybe it could be stiffer. It comes out of the oven beautifully. But then with five or six hours, it's like shrunk down and oh my gosh the merinque is like half an inch thick instead of 3 inches high.

CK: Really

Caller: Yeah

SM: You said though you're mixing fresh egg whites with what's powdered egg whites?

Caller: Yeah,

SM: I'm going to be honest; I haven't used powdered egg whites. They're pasteurized, so that's a real plus, because they're safe. You don't have to worry about salmonella. But my girlfriend who's a pastry chef, I believe has told me she doesn't get the same volume or same scale.

CK: Can the powder. Yeah, just use five or six egg whites. And that'll cure your problem. There's something odd going on with

SM: and just add the extra egg yolks to your scrambled eggs the next morning.

Caller: That's it. And you know, I'm thrifty. And that's why I'm trying to do this. In fact, at first, I thought well, I'll just throw the extra egg yolks in the filling and then it makes it like lemon meringue soup because the filling doesn't set up.

CK: Yeah, but I think the the dehydrated egg whites (are just not the same) so you say you said three inches down to half an inch, which sounds like

SM: and that's what you're doing different then you used to

Caller: Yeah,

CK: That's weird.

Caller: Yeah, I think it is. You know what, I'm going to do an experiment. I'll make two pies. One with the dehydrated egg whites and one with six or seven egg whites

SM: Ooh. Do it

CK: take pictures and send to us

SM: then John, get back to us.

Caller: I promise.

SM: Okay. All right. It's a deal.

CK: Hey, John. Thanks

SM: Thank you

Caller Thank you. Love your show. Bye bye.

CK: Thank you. You're listening to Milk Street Radio after the break. Love loss and family recipes with Chantha Nguon. That's in just a moment. Hey, this is Chris Kimbell, and I need your help. We're working on a story about the battles we all have in our home kitchens. Maybe you're tired of your partner telling you how to cook or maybe they always leave a mess. Or maybe you're frustrated by your loved ones highly restrictive diet. We want to hear about your kitchen dramas from the biggest food fights to your everyday grievances. You can leave us a voicemail at 617-249-3167. 617-249-3167 or send a voice memo to radio tips at 177 Milk One more time, call us at 617-249-3167 or email us a voice memo at Radio tips at 177 Milk Please include your name and where you're calling from Thank you.

This is Milk Street Radio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. My next guest Chantha Nguon grew up in Cambodia in the 1960s where her life was easy. She says that her mother loved to indulge both herself with elegant clothes and her guests with extravagant meals. But then, just before Chantha turned nine, everything changed. Her father died and her family had to flee Cambodia to escape the Communist army which targeted ethnic Vietnamese, like Chantha and her family. Chantha lost everything.

Clara Kim: Hunger focuses the mind but shrinks one's hopes. In a way, I was lucky. Though I'd lost my home and my family there was something no one could take away. A happy childhood, rich with the flavors of my mother's cooking.

CK: That's Chantha’s daughter Clara reading from Chantha’s new book Slow Noodles, which she co-wrote with Kim Green it’s part memoir and part cookbook.

Clara Kim: Now that I finally have a kitchen of my own, I found a sweeter way to resurrect the past, rekindling the aromas of my mother's cooking. When I stove the charcoal grill for roasting pork ribs or stir coconut milk into fish amok. I revert to the age when I tasted the dish for the first time and my mother's image comes flooding back.

CK: In Slow Noodles, Chantha recounts her life as a refugee, which included cooking in a brothel serving drinks in a nightclub, making street food, many years in a Thai refugee camp, and working as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders. Through it all, she relied on her mother's slow noodles approach to both healing and cooking Chantha welcome to Milk Street

Chantha Nguon: Oh, thank you for having me, Chris. It's an honor.

CK: You were born in the Year of the Buffalo. And you write a child born in the Buffalo year is industrious, and stubborn as she must be, for her toils will likely take many years to bear fruit. No saviors will magically appear so, she must learn to depend on herself. That was a pretty good, unfortunately, prediction of much of your life. Many, many years, and nobody came out of the blue to solve your problems right?

CN: That's right. And that's what we still believe the year we were born is, you know, defining our life.

CK: So, explain to me growing up so what kind of place did you live in and in Cambodia what was that like your early childhood?

CN: I, I grown up like my my first nine years, which until today, I wish I never grow older than nine-year-old. And that's the best time in my life. And my father was a mechanic. And I had everything. I mean, we had food. We went to school and around me I had friends in the neighborhood. They were poor. So, we had plenty in the house. And I shared fruit or candies or anything I had. And so that's how I grown up.

CK: So, you spent the first years of your life in Cambodia and then in ‘72 You fled with some of your siblings to Vietnam, your mother stayed behind with one of your older brothers to sort out your affairs there. Can you tell me why your mother made that decision?

CN: To keep my brothers saved because my father passed in 1969. And my mother was alone, nobody to protect us. So, she decided to send all of my brothers, because we are half Vietnamese, to Vietnam, and I was the youngest. So, I went with them. And then she needs to stay behind and sell the house of our grandparents. But to be able to do so she needs a son. And he was 18, the year we left. So, my brother stayed with my mother to be able to sell the house. And then we went to Vietnam and the house with 20 people. And we had nothing to eat. So that's the difference between my nine year and 10 years old.

CK: So, when you arrived to Vietnam in that house with 20 people, that everyone tried to go out and get a job for money. I guess there were ration cards at the time. How did you have any food to eat?

CN: I was too young to remember. But also, I all I can think of was missing my mother. Because I, the first nine years of my life, I slept with my mother. So, I couldn't sleep at night, because I just I don't have my mother.

CK: You said in Kashmir, there's a saying if a father dies, the children eat rice with fish. If a mother dies, the children sleep on a leaf.

CN: Yes, that's our saying it means when the mother die, it's more difficult for the father to take care of the children. When the father die, and we still have our mother, she always manage, she always do everything she can to provide for her children.

CK: So, your mother does come back or makes it to Vietnam, but not your brother. And you said that as they were trying to walk their way to Vietnam the soldiers came, and your brother was conscripted

CN: Yes. And, and that's the reason that we lost him. We will never see him again.

CK: So, what happened to the rest of your family who went to Vietnam with you?

CN: First of all, my brother, the younger one among the three he died very soon after we arrived in Vietnam. My oldest brother, he was the gold, the diamond of the family. And they he also died of peritonitis. And then a year later, my sister died of stomach ulcer. My my mother, she she buried all of her children. And then she left me on my own. She died soon after my sister passed.

CK: So, after this horrific experience, you're almost 20 now you went by yourself to Thailand. Who were you traveling with and why did you want to go to Thailand?

CN: I found a friend a companion because I'm not sure that I can do it on my own because I was totally protected by my mother when she's still alive. And that's what I did differently to my children today. I prepare them so that when I die, they are not that vulnerable like I was. So anyway, I found a friend and he became my boyfriend and then in the refugee camp, we became couple.

CK: So, you eventually get back to Cambodia and you you have two children. Is that right? (Yes) And you said which I thought was really compelling. You wrote for many years; I was so afraid of making my own daughter soft. I did not hug her. I did not tell Claire I loved her. I've been very tough on my children to ensure that they will never be as vulnerable as I was. You think that's of all the things a parent needs to do raising children that you think is is very, very important?

CN: I don't think every parent are refugees like me. Because when your mother tried to protect you and say, just stay home and I will take care of you. That's absolutely cannot happen to my children. So, the day she was born, I, I want her to be strong. And that's why I never hug her. So that when she left me, she doesn't need my hug. And it's just tore my heart apart. But yes, now they are strong. And if I passed, they won't be on the street like I was when my mother left me, in this world alone,

CK: Do you hug your daughter now?

CN: The first time I hugged her was she’s in high school. She came home and she stepped in the door, and she yell, mom, I am the top of marks in the whole school, not just my class. And I just hugged her, and she said, Mom, you hurt me.

CK: You have some recipes in the book, which are recipes for life. Not necessarily just for cooking. And I just like to read part of the rice recipe. “Fill a large rice sack with the dozens of pairs of stupid clogs you bought to make yourself feel less poor. These will serve as excellent firewood. And then you go on now is the time for forgetting. Burn the shoes, burn the rice burn away, the spoiled girl softness. A soft young girl with nothing at all will not survive the Saigon streets for long. You're not ready for this”. So, the book has wonderful recipes, but some of them are for about how to live, not how to cook, right?

CN: Yeah. It's up to the readers who take on whatever part of the book. But it's really hard for me to talk about it any time at all.

CK: But you did such a wonderful job writing about it. I mean, it's a very, very difficult story to tell. I’d like to play now another clip from your daughter Clara, who's reading a recipe from your book. It's called Silken Rebellion Fish Fry, or how to make unfresh fish tastes rather delicious.

Clara Kim: This is an excellent training dish for a teenage refugee girl who is learning to cook buy the least rotten fish you can find in the communal store or from your neighbor in the market. In a bowl let fish sit for one to two hours in too much salt. Chop lemongrass, garlic, and a vast quantity of chili. overdoing it on the salt and chili will make your eyes water and imbue the old fish with a taste or forgetfulness. The ideas for you to forget that this is a very bad fish indeed. In a medium skillet, heat oil over high heat. Turn the heat down and fry fish slowly until golden and crisp. Eat it with jasmine rice. If a bad fish memory reasserts itself, season with more salt and chili as needed.

CN: All the recipes I made for my children, all the recipes I had in in my heart. And that helped me to survive.

CK: Well, I just want to say that I love the way your recipes and experiences reflect one another throughout the book. And having your daughter's voice on the audio book I think really brings it full circle. (Yes) So about 20 years ago, you started a Women's Development Center. Maybe you could tell us a little about that.

CN: So, in 1995 me and my partner get a job with Doctors Without Borders they start to project and to train. And one of my five tasks was to take care of the dying sex workers in the hospital. And I wanted to continue that work. So, I saw the country hit the new project called Women Development and started with women literacy and we join in and and I look at the way how a woman who never been to school had one year literacy can have, can have a job. So, I use that to combine, and we teach them weaving we do it in silk. And our weavers became the best weavers in Cambodia, and they earn like $200 a month. And that's when the primary school teacher earn about $40 a month.

CK: What is Cambodia like today?

CN: Cambodia today we have much, much more opportunity for work, but also the education for women in the rural areas still, the government is trying very hard to improve the life of women but it's still we still have to do more.

CK: Chantha this has been an honor for me. I really, really have enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.

CN: Thank you for having me today.

CK: That was Chantha Nguon. She is co-author of Slow Noodles, a Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss and Family Recipes. Chantha told me that she never hugged her daughter until she was 15 years old in order to make her more resilient to life's tragedies. She also commented, my life was over at age nine. A Vietnamese proverb says fire tests gold, tough situations test endurance. Chantha is real gold. You're listening to Milk Street Radio coming up Alex Ainouz ranked the best pastas at the grocery store. I'm Christopher Kimball and this is Milk Street Radio. Now let's check in with our Paris correspondent, Alex Ainouz. Alex, how are you?

Alex Ainouz: I'm good Chris. I'm good. But to be honest, I've got a problem. I think going to a supermarket and trying to find a good pasta brand is a bit of a nightmare.

CK: Well, I agree there are too many choices. And sometimes the really expensive, beautifully packaged ones are not the best.

AA: Exactly. That's exactly my point, I should have called you in the first place. That would have spare me from doing a six-month series on pasta. So, I'm going to be reviewing a few pasta brands and feel free to tell me if they're available in the US. But I'm mostly going to concentrate my efforts on Italian pasta brands. So, I'm thinking Barilla obviously is available in the US. And I'm going to start by the broad, pretty sad on this one. It's not a good brand. I've been buying Barilla pasta my whole life. Just because the package is beautiful in France and because the name sounds Italian.

CK: What is it made in New Jersey in something?

AA: No. Italy, it could be made in the US and be amazing. It's just like its random pasta, the way they made them, the way they dry them the way they extrude them. I'll come back on this later. But Italians know it and I feel like they are not sharing the secret with us foreigners. So, Barilla I think if you're a foodie, it should be out of the game. And trust me it was it was sad when I learned this with Italian chefs and Italian pasta manufacturers.

CK: Well, can I just ask you a question like you're supposed to have a great palate. You're a sort of a scientist. And you just said to me you've been eating it your whole life. So, what's that about?

AA: So either I'm a fraud, which could be an option.

CK: I was asking. Just asking

AA: I mean, this is honestly so you know what I grew up eating Barilla (Okay). This was my standard. So, to me, it doesn't taste bad. If you never feed someone with the good stuff that doesn't, you don't know what the good stuff is.

CK: I always blame my mother or father every time I can. Yeah, it's their fault. (Yes) So is there something better than that?

AA: I think De Cecco is pretty available in the US. And De Cecco is a huge bump in terms of quality in terms of price, it's probably going to cost you 50 cents or $1 more per package compared to Barilla, for example, but in terms of the wheat, they very often use Italian wheat, which is always a good sign. They do bones exclusion, which is the gold standard when it comes to excluding pasta. Let me let me explain super quick what bones exclusion is, when making dry pasta when shaping dry pasture, the dough is forced through some sort of a a mold, some sort of a disc with a hole in the center. That process is called extrusion. And depending on the shape of the hole, you imprint, you create a specific pasta shape. So, when you do this, and you have an industrial that only thinks about cost, you use a Teflon dye a Teflon mold, because it goes faster, it's nonstick. So, you're able to spit out pasta, you know at lightspeed. However, if you're an artisan pasta, and you also care about the end texture of pasta, you would rather use a dye that is made out of bones. So, the dough when it's forced through that dye is slowing down because of the friction that is greater with a mold like this. But it creates something amazing, it creates some sort of a, you know, microscopic accordion, a rough texture on pasta.

CK: So, the sauce clings to it better?

AA: Exactly, exactly. That's amazing. And De Cecco use bones die, and it makes for instant, better pasta. They also use low temperature as slow drying, which is always a plus because they're able to preserve, you know, nutritional value. Now, if you really love pasta, another option might be interesting. And I'm thinking depending on what's available in the US either Rummo so R-U-M-M-O

CK: Never seen that.

AA: Then you've got La Molisana. That's another one. (I've seen that, I’ve seen that) Ah okay, solid and the last one was Garofalo. (No, I haven't seen that) Okay, so in a nutshell La Molisana pasta is my favorite pasta at least the one that I can get in standard grocery store.

CK: Okay, can I stop you and ask you, let me ask you a question. So, you've talked about bronze extrusion disc, I get that. But the flour for example, which I assume is critical. Do you want a really high gluten flour? Do you want what makes great flour for great pasta?

AA: So, first of all die pasta is always made with semolina. (So ___-flour that's very high gluten). Exactly. All these pastas are pretty much standardized in terms of protein content. However, you're very right on something. What do you do if you can’t spot the De Cecco or like La Molisana? What if all the names are like foreign to you? Well, you can look for bones dye, as we mentioned earlier on, you can look for slow drying, that's very good sign and you can look for any mentioned about the grain they use. If they're proud to mention any geographical indication. That's always a good sign. And it could be the US for that matter if it's made in the US, but they are proud of it. And they mentioned organic Dermoid I'm buying this this is amazing. So, what does it mean? What you have now, one brand to avoid two brands that you can favor and a few mentions that you could be looking for on a package now? What is it going to do in the end to your pasta dishes at home, they are going to be better instantly you buy Le Cecco or you buy La Molisana and you make the same pasta that you make regularly with like a sauce that you wrap up yourself. Obviously, it's going to be better for many reasons the sauce is going to cling better, the sauces is going to thicken nicer because like the pastor starch is going to be more present. I've been doing this with a blindfold on. And after loads and loads of tasting, I was able to taste that durum wheat flavor and that texture that that is a little more alive on the good pasta.

CK: So, have you sent a case of the good stuff to your mother yet? I mean, did you have the conversation (with my mom) about your ruined childhood with Barilla? That's what I want to know.

AA: We've got plenty subject to discuss before this one.

CK: This is not top of mind okay Exactly.

AA: It's not top of the list. Yeah.

CK: Okay. I do have one final question before we go. (Yeah) in this country. Everyone got on to the term all dente 20 years ago which I find, I find a lot of things annoying right but a lot of people just undercook their pasta biggest they say that's al dente. Could you just describe what al dente means to you?

AA: So, al dente is supposed to be just some sort of firm texture. You are very right. I think people are using and abusing that term. I've eaten pasta made by not friends, but acquaintance I would call them and when it gets stuck in your back molar that's the sign that you're below al dente.

CK: I've been to an Italian restaurant in New York where it was half cooked. Literally half cooked.

AA: The pasta’s not good has a different taste to it. And it's not enjoyable. I mean, I've been cooking with Italian chef in Italian kitchens in Rome. And I was tempted to get the pasta out of the bath thinking I need to make them really al dente, otherwise, I'm going to get punished. And the guy just placed them back in the pan and said, what are you doing? We still want fully cooked pasta. And I was like, right. So, al dente is one thing, it just means we should be going for a little firmer than the old soft versions of maybe our mom's. But yeah, the molar stuck situation it's out.

CK: Well, I can say two things. I agree with you about the difference between good and poor pasta and al dente. And I hope you can reconcile with your mother soon.

AA: I will promise.

CK: Alex, thank you.

AA: Thank you, Chris goodbye.

CK: That was Alex Ainouz, host of Just a French Guy Cooking on YouTube. That's it for this week's show. Please don't forget you can find more than 250 episodes at Milk Street Radio, on our website, Milk Street or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk There you can become a member and get 1000s of recipes, access our online cooking classes and get free shipping on all orders from the Milk Street store. You can also learn about our latest book, Milk Street 365 the All-Purpose Cookbook for Every Day of the Year. Please check us out on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week and thanks as always for listening.

Chris Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, senior editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Theme music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.