How I learned to connect with my father through cooking.
I was 18 years old when I tried father’s cooking for the first time. When it was just mom raising my two older siblings and me, it was always so much easier to just pretend he didn’t exist. People would ask about my father and I would tell them that I don’t know him. When they realized what I’ve said, they would say “I’m sorry, I had no idea” and I would always reply with “yeah, me neither” and we would both go our separate ways. I truly have no idea who he was, only that I’ve seen pictures of him that mom stashed away and forgot about. Mom refused to talk about him — at one point she even took scissors and cut him out of a family photo of us. Sometimes it was so much easier to throw a blanket over the whole situation and pretend it didn’t happen. The feelings I tried to cover up and leave behind, slowly filled into a hot-air balloon full of denial.
The year after I graduated from high school, I got news from my older brother that dad was coming to visit Olympia, Washington from Long Beach, California. It felt like a piano key sounding offkey. I wasn’t sure to be angry, sad, happy, or shock — I just knew that I had to see him. It would have been the first time I met him. After all, growing up, I learned and experienced a great many things while he was away.
I was about 8 when the weight of my father’s absence truly weighed heavy over my heart like a storm cloud. The occasional outburst of my anger was like the lightning strike that struck the Earth in form of having snapped at my mother and siblings, which translate into a brewing storm at school when I’ve struck a kid who mocked me by slanting his eyes back with his hands and called me “ching-chong.” It felt as if the world was against me and everyone was pissing me off, but I was young, naive, and full of quiet rage.
Fast forward a couple years after. I was 10 years old and I have found a soulmate in cooking and music. I’ve watched mom cook for me and my siblings for as long as I’ve lived, but I’ve never seen her play an instrument. Mom had a great humming voice, maybe that’s where I got my interest in music from. With mom being understandably stingy, she couldn’t put me into piano lessons but she’ll get various ingredients to make curry or Cambodian Katew (noodle soup). But that’s okay because I found something I really connected with and so I taught myself music using old piano tutorial books from my uncle and a busted-looking electric keyboard. I taught myself to cook using ingredients my mom brought and a recipe book I found lying around. There was something therapeutic in teaching myself how to do things. With all the pent up anger and pain, I had no one but myself to tell me how to do things. Cooking and music have always been there for me as an outlet to express myself. Music and cooking are equally powerful forces. It felt like nothing stood in the way between me and the keyboard or the ingredient and pans — I had total control over the piano keys just as I had control over the ingredients and pans to use. I could smell the ingredients of notes eliciting from the piano as I could hear the clashing of chords of ingredients working together in a pan, though seemed clunky and random to another, were a complete symphony of aromas that lifted the weight off my shoulder and clearing the looming cloud over my head. I have finally found a reason to move forward.
When I was 18 years old, I realized that the absence of my father wasn’t all bad. The years that he was away, I’ve learned how to ride a bike, how to fight, throw a football, play a musical instrument, cook for myself, how to act on my first date, how to be towards women, and how to drive. I had 17 great birthdays prior to seeing him. I was bitter towards him, but not in the same way a person would be bitter towards someone. Cooking taught me that sometimes even the bitterness of certain food will come to pass when you come to learn of the sweetness that comes with each bite. My bitterness towards him was like eating bitter-melon stuffed with pork and shrimp soup — bitter at first, but as I kept eating, digging into the sweetness of pork and shrimp, I learned not to mind the bitter taste after a while.
Mom asked me if I wanted to see dad. I was initially surprised because it was the first instance in which she mentioned my dad. I said no. I thought back to all the crucial moments he had missed in my life and the family’s life. He had his chance to make it up for me and the family for the past 17 years. “It’s your choice, but you might not ever see him again,“ mom said. She wouldn’t push me to do something I don’t want to do, but I took it as a sign that I needed to. I just knew that somewhere in my heart that I needed closure so I said okay.
My older brother went to pick up my father from Sea-Tac Airport while my older sister, my three years old niece, and I anxiously wait at our aunt’s house in Bothell, Washington. I thought about what I was going to say to him. I wondered if he will remember me. I looked at pictures of my father and wondered if he looked the same.
The front door opened and closed and it felt like the concrete part of my heart has cracked once father entered the room, as if all the feelings of anger and sadness overwhelmed me — speechless. He was shorter than I thought, rounder, and it seemed as if the left side of his body and face sagged a bit. He didn’t say a word to me or my niece. As he talked in Khmer to my brother and sister, I stood motionless and speechless that I have seen my father. When my sister called my name over, my father had a look of surprise on his face. “That’s Sam?” he said to my sister. “I thought that was your husband.”
My heart sunk. I’m not surprised he didn’t recognize me. I gave him an awkward embrace. “Yeah, pa, it’s me.”
I stayed with my father at my aunt’s house for the week while my brother and sister went to work. The first few days were rough. He hardly talked to me. He would ask me about how school was and if I had a girlfriend, but that was about it. I guess we couldn’t really hold a conversation. But from what I could get out of him, I figured out a few things. It seemed like we had nothing in common. The distance between our heart made that very clear. He had no interest in any sports or music. I had no interest in postcards or knee-pads. He had no interest in any particular style and fashion. I had no interest in his collection of old news and politics from Cambodia. I began to think that maybe he wasn’t my father, but the only thing that kept me from thinking otherwise was our stubbornness. He had no clue how to use his Lenovo laptop and I had no clue how to work his decade-old Nokia phone, and yet we were too stubborn to ask each other for help. The language barrier between us was thicker than the cold wall that separated our rooms — but at least he was trying. I had no clue how to talk to him. I would understand the barest minimum in Khmer as he would in English. To say that it was an awkward few days would be an understatement (it doesn’t help that we’re both awkward and can’t hold a conversation with each other).
Father didn’t cook the first couple of days he was here because my aunt would do all the cooking with some of the freshest ingredients straight out of the garden. She grew everything you think of — tomato, cilantro, pears, apples, parsley, basil, onions, carrots, cucumber, etc.
One day, aunt left for work and it was just the two of us. We didn’t have anything to eat besides the leftover from days ago. I was sick of eating rice that I decided to go hungry until my siblings came back.
Dad decided to snoop around the pantry and then the garden. “Are you hungry?” he said in Khmer. “Yeah, but I don’t want to eat rice,” I said. Dad whipped up the pans and oil and looked to me and smiled as if he said he wants me to watch.
I salivated at the smell of beef dancing with finely minced garlic, diced tomatoes, and bell peppers.
“What are you making?” I said.
“Mee Ka Thung,” he replied.
“Mee Ka Thung — wide-noodle and beef.”
The smell of Oyster Sauce and soy sauce with thinly sliced green onion atop a bed of thick noodles and thinly sliced beef tickled my nose. The way the diced mushroom, broccoli, and baby corn embraced each other like a family who hasn’t seen each other in a while. I watched Dad cook for the first time as if I was five years old peering over the counter-top observing when mom cook. And for the first time, the distance between our hearts began to close, the language barrier that stood before us came crashing down, and we come to understand each other through food. He might not have an interest in music, but the way he cooks, the rhythm in the way he put together the ingredients and the care he takes in creating a melody of flavor is something that must’ve took years of experience and practice.
A simple Cambodian dish in Mee Ka Thung hides a complexity of flavor, which could be understood only between the relationship of the chef and his ingredients and you can learn a lot about a person in the way they cook. Because through food, can I learn more about my father.