Story and some photos by Lindsay Sterling. Photo of ingredients by Tim Greenway.
The story of how Makara Meng came to cook her favorite Cambodian curry stew in the United States starts when she was four years old. Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers invaded her rural village, divided her family by age and sex, and placed them in separate labor camps. In her camp, soldiers forced Makara and the other kids to wake at 5:00 a.m. to weed the rice fields. At noon, they were given their meal of the day: between 5 and 20 grains of rice in a bowl of water, 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 tied Makara to a rope and spent the evening kicking her 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 scramming, and her seven-year-old-self just standing there, waiting for someone to rescue her.
“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 in different countries for six years. 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 a little thing called a toothbrush. Because copper was a prized metal to them, 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 Portland, Maine, to be with a friend, got remarried, had two more kids, and bought a store, Mittapheap world market, at 61 Washington Ave.
It was there that Makara told me this story, in -- as a very strange God would have it - the rice isle. I asked her if she would teach me a dish from her homeland. This Cambodian curry stew is one she and her mother made in her childhood before all that hell broke loose.
Today the two of them are still together and make it in South Portland for family birthday parties. It consists of bone-in chicken pieces, eggplant, yam, green beans and onion wedges all wading in a thick, red sauce.
The key ingredient in the sauce is a homemade curry paste that 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 flower.
The name of this dish in Cambodian sounds like the English words, “Some law,” something I might say to express how unbelievable the shit in the world is, and how unbelievable the good.