This post first appeared at slownoodles.com, a blog about Cambodian cooking and Chantha Nguon’s forthcoming memoir. This is condensed from an interview with Chantha from 1/19/2016.
My mother loved cooking. For her, it was an art. She took care with everything she made. It had to be very delicate and prepared the exact same way each time, to her exacting standards.
One of my favorite breakfasts was num kruok, a pancake made from a watery-thin dough of coconut milk and rice flour, with lots of scallions. (In Japan, there’s a similar pancake dough called takoyaki. You’ll see it sold on the street very often—a delicious snack!)
You fry the dough in a specially-seasoned clay pan with half-sphere depressions. Then, as the dough crisps on the outside, you put the half-spheres together to make a crispy golden ball that’s soft on the inside and round like an egg.
It was my father’s favorite breakfast too, and my mother (I called her “Mae”) and oldest sister (Chanthu) had to have it ready by the time he got up to have his tea. That meant Mae and Chanthu were up by 4am, grinding rice flour and squeezing out coconut milk so the first pancakes would be ready by 6am. We all sat together ate them hot off the fire, one after another, as fast as Chanthu could produce them.
Here’s how it’s done: You mash the crunchy exterior and soft insides into a sweet-spicy-salty sauce of coconut milk, palm sugar, fish sauce, and chili paste; the first bite crunches like a crepe, but each bite afterward becomes softer and softer, like pudding, as the pancake mixes into the sauce. Even as a tiny girl of 5 or 6, I could eat 20 of them in a single sitting.
In my memory, those num kruok mornings were very special. The pancakes were tricky to get just right, but to me, the difficulty just made them taste even better.
I’ve tried to eat num kruok on the street in Phnom Penh, but it doesn’t taste right to me—the sauce is all wrong. I experimented for years to get the sauce just right, just like my mother’s. Finally, one day, I hit upon the right combination of quality fish sauce, fresh coconut milk, and fiery chili, and my mouth was flooded with the taste of my mother’s kitchen. But it’s the togetherness that really made the dish—the feeling of home and family, everyone in the kitchen cooking and eating. That’s the feeling I can’t quite reproduce. But cooking num krouk for other people—with everyone taking their turns at the griddle and eating the pancakes hot off the fire—comes pretty close.
As you can see in the video below—of a morning in Nashville, when we made them together with guests. It was the perfect mix of laughter, togetherness, crunchy pancakes, and sweet-salty sauce—the taste of my Battambang childhood.