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By Laura Stec

To Cambodia With Love

Uploaded: Sep 18, 2014

"I escaped the Khmer Rouge when I was 12 years old, after surviving year round starvation and harsh labor camps. My two older brothers fled first in 1976, followed by my father and younger brother in 1978. With the help of UNICEF, my mother, sister and I escaped to the U.S. in 1979. We reunited with my two oldest brothers, but I never saw my father or younger brother again."

And so begins my interview with Channy Laux, owner of Apsara Foods, a Cambodian condiment company based in Fremont, CA. Channy is noticeably upset as she recounts the horrors of her childhood, but she doesn't focus on them, nor do the memories motivate her efforts. As senior staff systems engineer, her days are math and science, but nights and weekends bring the passion to honor her mother by keeping alive the prized seasonings and sauces of her childhood.

"My mother was a cook in life, that's what she was known for and what she did with pride. When she passed in 2010, I realized I didn't even have a picture of her in the kitchen. I wanted to honor her lifelong commitment."

Channy cooked up three Cambodian dishes: Fish Amok, Pineapple Soup, and Beef Brochettes. The soup was yummy and easy, seasoned with Red Lemongrass Paste.

The beef was simply marinated in Green Lemongrass Paste before grilling.

Amok was more complicated; coconut milk, Red Lemongrass Paste and egg are a custard base for kale and white fish.

"Many Bay Area Cambodian restaurants are more Thai-like in their approach. Apsara is less sweet, more authentic."

Fish sauce, lemongrass, thai chiles, galangal, kaffir lime, anchovy, turmeric and tamarind are the classic seasonings, many that grew around Channy's Cambodian home. It's a taste bud symphony, and the anchovy bumps the umami, that savory, full flavored taste. And maybe that's all you need? We talk about that in Cool Cuisine. Use meat and fish as a condiment for vegetables and grains, rather than the main dish.

I open the lemongrass paste, add it to the coconut milk and Chheng Ly's bottled passion, and freedom of spirit,jumo out of the jar and into the food.
Slurping my coconut veggie rice noodles... these words keeping playing in my head.

Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we are free at last.

Red Lemongrass Coconut Sauce

Saute ½ jar of Apsara Cambodian Red Lemongrass Paste for a minute. Add 1 can coconut milk. Simmer 5-10 minutes. Pour over noodles or grains. Top with sautéed seasonal veggies.

Fish Amok banana leaf bowls

Q: Why was the Khmer Rouge after you guys, Channy? What was their problem?

A: Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Cambodia, that took over Cambodia from April, 1975 - January, 1979. Under Khmer Rouge, Cambodians died from either starvation or execution. Most people they executed were intellectual, business owners, and formal regime soldiers. Since my dad was a businessman, we were targeted for execution or to be "re-educated." They took me from my family to the labor camps, far away from civilization, with poor conditions and not enough food. Everyday, I prayed to see my family, just one more time. It was not fear of death that drove my family to flee, it was the need to be free from emotional and physical tortures. My parent's biggest fear was the gloomy future - a life without freedom to speak, travel, learn, explore, cook our own meals, pick our partner, and the fear of having your child taken away. Our parents told us, "Whenever you get a chance to leave, to be free, take it and never look back. Never regret."

*Apsara are supernatural royal female dancers from Buddhist mythology.