Before jumping into sharing the stories of others. I wanted to first off introduce my personal story and what influenced me to create Community Table. Born to refugee parents as a first generation Chinese/Lao/Cambodian Australian, I have long been spoiled by food, whether it’s a mid-week dinner at home or a special occasion like Chinese New Year. But whatever the reason, food has always been a topic of discussion and the person behind these creations has been my mum, Mu Ly Chanthadavong – and this is her story.
“One chicken rice takeaway!” My Ly Chanthadavong fires off to the kitchen at a Thai takeaway store in Cabramatta, one last time before she sets her sight for a 2.30p.m. finish from work.
The 63-year-old has spent the last 25 years – a majority of her time since arriving in Australia as a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s – working at her brother in-law’s takeaway store.
But food does not stray too far from her mind even after work, detouring to the local vegetable store and butcher to pick up a roast duck, some curry paste and fresh bamboo shoots for what will be cooked into a pot of Thai red duck curry for dinner later that night.
“For as long as I can remember I have always enjoyed eating and cooking,” she says. “The only reason I’m working for my brother-in-law was that it was good timing when he opened up, and it was just fortunate enough I loved food.”
Long before becoming a victim of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Chanthadavong’s earliest memories of food involved spending her childhood helping her aunty sell deep-fried banana fritters before and after school.
Life at home in Saram, a village three hours out from the capital city of Cambodia, was rich with pigs, chickens and ducks roaming the backyard and fresh fish from the flowing river nearby.
“It was mainly Chinese food that was cooked by my dad when I was growing up, like vegetable stir fries, egg noodles with tofu and broths. But the best thing was everything was really fresh, especially fish that my older brothers would go get from the river out back,” Chanthadavong says.
She also took her hand at helping out with the family business, rolling out dough that made Chinese chive cakes and wrapping the steamed sticky rice in bamboo leaf.
“I’d take a giant plate stacked with some Chinese chive cakes and the steamed sticky rice, hold it against my waist and walk down the street, and off I went to sell them. It was the normal way people would sell food then.
“When I made enough money, I’d go to this shop down the road to buy myself a bowl of noodles. It was so rewarding.”
Poverty however hit the family and Chanthadavong was forced to move in with another aunty where she spent most of her teen years to early 20s living. “When I moved to Phnom Penh we weren’t very well off but my aunty no matter the financial situation would still spoil us on special occasions. I remember on pray days we’d have roast ducks, chickens and fish on the table.”
However when the Khmer Rouge forced their way through the country, Chanthadavong’s food enriched lifestyle fast became a distant memory.
“We were all forced to go into the countryside to work in the fields and if the soldiers suspected that you weren’t doing a good enough job they’d hit you. After long days in the field, the Khmer Rouge would ration us with rice but as time went on we received smaller portions that ended up having congee-like consistency. Because of that, many people died of malnutrition, especially because the work was so hard. I spent four years of my life there.”
Arriving to Australia at the age of 28-years-old, Chanthadavong learned about her new home through food. “At one point I was working at a carpet factory and every Saturday I’d always put my order in with this boy named Peter who worked there too and would always get our food for us from the milk bar. I always ordered a hamburger with the lot and it was always so nice.”
Her tastebuds was further broadened by the influence of her husband’s Laotian background and her enjoyment of Vietnamese food. “My husband taught me how to cook Laos food but I improved it through trial and error, which was much the same for Vietnamese food. We use to go and eat at this Vietnamese restaurant nearby our house so much we became regulars but now I know how to cook their food too.
“Even up until today I enjoy watching cooking shows. There’s always been something about them that inspires me to cook new food and makes me hungry at the same time.”