When Kunrath Lam was just a little girl she endured one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever known. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died during the reign of the Communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Kunrath Lam and her parents somehow managed to survive – though her childhood was one of intense deprivation. Lam used to dream of the delicious meals her grandmother had prepared for her in happier times. Lam’s absolute favorite– plear salad. Now, in the new country she calls home, Lam makes plear for customers at her restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mary Stucky paid her a visit. Her story appeared in World Vision Report.
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Stucky: Kunrath Lam takes such joy in cooking, perhaps because she’s trying to make up for lost time.
Lam: During Communism I was starving but now I make food for everybody to eat. I teach you about my culture, about Cambodian food how wonderful it is, how healthy it is.
Stucky: On this day in her restaurant near downtown, Lam is getting ready to cook her signature dish — plear salad. First she assembles the many ingredients. Some are familiar — thinly sliced beef tenderloin, grated carrot, red and green bell pepper, bean sprouts, basil, mint, spring onions. There’s a green leaf Lam calls “pah-PEL,” along with lemongrass and galanga, which resembles ginger. Once the ingredients are ready, Lam heats her wok.
Lam: I’m sautéing the beef with lime juice in hot wok. That’s how we do it. Add a little salt, a little sugar to bring the taste up.
Stucky: And then she adds the sauce — plear is not plear without the special sauce.
Lam: It has vinegar, sugar, garlic, pepper. And fish sauce.
Stucky: After the beef cools down a bit, Lam puts the sauce and all the other ingredients into a metal bowl and mixes gently. Then she puts the mixture onto a plate with a little rice and sprigs of mint.
Lam: Would you like to taste a bit? When you eat you have to pick some of the mint leaf while you eat. It’s complicated to make it, but once you make it you can’t stop eating it.
Stucky: Perhaps because it is so complicated, this is a dish Cambodians make for special occasions like weddings and birthdays. But, for Kunrath Lam, the most special occasion for eating plear came after the murderous Khmer Rouge was finally driven out of power. Lam made her way back to the house where she had grown up in the capital of Phnom Penh. One by one other family members joined her.
Lam: My grandma was so happy to see the children who survived. My grandma would make plear salad for us to eat. I remember the celebration and happy times together. So wonderful.
Stucky: Eventually Lam’s family fled Cambodia, ending up in a refugee camp just over the border in Thailand. After years in the camp, a stroke of good luck – a church in St. Paul offered to sponsor the family. They arrived on a snowy November day in 1983. Lam opened her restaurant 13 years ago, and introduced people in Minnesota to Cambodian cuisine.
Lam: My customers are like my family now. That’s why I cook for them. I feel from my heart.
Stucky: The name of Lam’s restaurant is Cheng Heng – Cheng is the middle name of Lam’s husband. Heng means lucky. It’s a fitting name for her restaurant, because Kunrath Lam considers herself to be very lucky indeed.