Story by Lindsay Sterling
Photo by David Holman
My friend from Thailand taught me how to make pot stickers and pad Thai. Now I’m headed to her favorite Asian market to get the ingredients. On Forest Avenue heading North from downtown Portland, Maine, power lines swoop like garland between the town’s brick buildings and cars flow as naturally as blood cells. After the lit Domino’s pizza sign, I turn right into a narrow parking lot. Asian-Americans are spilling out a yellow building with a sign above it: Haknuman Meanchey. People are carrying bags of rice as big as couch cushions on their shoulders. We all do a good job of pretending that there’s no difference between those present and me, a third-generation Caucasian-American, born in Wisconsin, accustomed to buying rice in a sac the size of an aerobics weight.
Haknuman sells an average of 50 bags of rice each day and 100 phone cards. The owner and a bank estimated in 2003 that there were close to 10,000 Asians living in Maine. Everyday about 40 other non-Asians like me visit Haknuman, inspired by Asian friends. The store, no bigger than a coffee shop, is packed with a million things you’ve never seen before, like dried Croaker fish, 4 oz. of Turmeric for $1.59, and frozen small edible frogs. I want to ask questions without stopping for a year straight. I could spend my whole life learning in this place.
A woman whose name sounds like Merely Q helps me find things on my list: Twin Marquis Shanghai style dumpling wrappers, Thai Fruit tamarind concentrate, salted radish, Squid fish sauce, fettuccini-shaped rice sticks, palm sugar, oyster sauce and rice vinegar. She co-owns the store with her brother. His name sounds like Boon Drrred POW! He was the first to come to Maine of all the siblings in the their family. Now there are three in Portland (pictured, plus Merely Q’s son), one in New Hampshire, one in California, and five in Cambodia.
Boon was a teenager in the 1970s. After being separated from his family and forced into a labor camp to haul fertilizer into rice paddies, he eventually escaped, walking 48 hours through day and night with a group of 10 strangers. He had no bag and wore rubber flip-flops. At night, he remembers, it was dark and silent in the jungle but for the sound of leaves touching one another and the wind. The group would stop every once in a while to eat quickly. They made rice in a pot and slapped dried fish straight on the fire. “No time for oil,” he says. They evaded communist soldiers, thieves and mines, and finally made it to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand where he lived for six years.
His first night in the States was in a hotel outside a New York airport. He marveled at all the lights in his room and water coming out of the faucet. The next day he flew to into Portland. He worked at Barber Foods for ten years, then as a truck driver for three more. In 2003, with help from a bank, he and Merely Q, who’d arrived in 1997, bought the store together. They’re open 7 days a week, 9 ‘til 7.
I highly recommend a trip to an Asian market. My kids, husband and friend all swooned at the result: hand made potstickers sprinkled with fried garlic and pad Thai. Get your ingredients at an Asian market near you. In Portland, Maine, try Haknuman: 803A Forest Ave., Portland, ME, 207-347-5029.