Born just after the Cambodian civil war in a province called Kampong Cham, the eldest daughter of the Ni family, Iris, had the primary responsibility of cooking for her three siblings.
"Both my parents were constantly busy running the family’s grocery store," recalls Iris. "They left home daily before dawn and it was my job to get up by five to prepare breakfast for my brothers and sisters."
Guided by her mother, Tongky, the first skills she learnt as early as age nine were how to wash the rice and light the traditional wood-burning stove to cook the breakfast porridge and pan fry the marinated pork before their walk to school.
"For those of Cambodian-Chinese origin like my family, school education meant attending two schools," explains Iris. "Cambodian public school from 7am until 11am and then changing uniforms to attend Chinese school from 1pm until 5pm every weekday."
In between, Iris had to heat lunch prepared the night before, clean up, change uniforms and make her way back to school.
"I didn't have time to play like the other kids in the neighbourhood and as a child that was very difficult for me," she says. "My family was poor, we had no electricity, gas or TV, so we all had to help out and fulfil certain chores. We had a lot of respect for our elders and parents."
Lunchtime meals were mostly easy Chinese stir-fried meats or veggie dishes and on occasion, the family enjoyed traditional Cambodian style grilled fish and soups. The family favourite was kuy teav, a traditional noodle soup recipe prepared with rice noodles, pork stock and toppings, which was a recipe passed down to the family by their chef grandfather, Chesong.
In the evening, Iris had to further assist her mum with dinner, prepare lunch for the next day, wash up with her younger sister, and aid with anything else required by her parents for their grocery store.
"I learnt to cook my first curry chicken when I was 12 and by the time, I turned 15, I was responsible for all the home meals," says Iris. "On weekends I would also go to the markets and stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables and meat which were staples my parents didn’t sell in their dry foods only grocery store."
The story of kuy teav noodle soup
"Both of my grandpas were chefs in the 1950s. Grandpa Sok, from my mother's side, was a wedding function chef and grandpa Chesong, from my father's side, owned a noodle bar which he closed after the war," explains Iris.
When Iris' parents married, they lived with her grandpa Chesong, who taught Iris' mum how to make kuy teav. Iris says, "[Mum] always said grandpa Chesong was a master of this noodle soup.
"Sadly, he passed away when I was 10, so mum filled the role of cooking this kuy teav for us to enjoy at least once a week."
While similar to Vietnamese pho in flavour, kuy teav is cooked with pork bone instead of chicken or beef. And from age 12, Iris remembers how she would assist her mum in the making of the family's favourite noodle soup, by washing and cleaning the pork bone, chopping the spring onions and the garlic cloves plus cleaning the bean sprouts.
"[Mum] always said grandpa Chesong was a master of this noodle soup."
While a university student in her early 20s, Iris attempted to make kuy teav for the first time for her family. "As a hospitality and tourism student I also held down a part-time job in administration for a private hospital, so I only cooked for my family on the weekends. One day, I decided I wanted to make kuy teav, so I went to the markets, bought all the ingredients and made it with my sister from memory, and it turned out very similar in taste to mum's."
Around that time, Iris also started trying a greater variety of traditional Cambodian recipes.
"The hospital provided our lunch and on my breaks, I enjoyed more traditional Cambodian flavours like fish amok, grilled pork and rice called bai sach chrouk and sour fish soup. This inspired me to begin cooking more Cambodian foods at home and trying new recipes."
Sharing Cambodian foods in Australia
"I arrived in Sydney in 2009 to learn and improve my English when I met my husband, and we now have three children together who are as equally fond of kuy teav as I was as a child, and they can't wait for me to make it each weekend," she says.
Wanting to make something more out of her cooking abilities, when her youngest daughter turned one, Iris began producing frozen dumplings and cooking Cambodian meals for online food business Food St, which sells homemade meals. In the future, Iris hopes to build on this. She wants to start her own catering business and pass on her recipes by teaching traditional Cambodian cooking classes.
"When I was little, I can't say I was happy about having to cook for my whole family, but I understand why I had to, and thanks to my powerful mum it's allowed me to create a career for myself and also have beautiful memories of those days," says Iris.
"For that reason, I want to give my children a choice and make them love cooking differently. I currently teach my eldest the basics and he helps me mix the dumpling pastry. This way, if in the future any of them want to learn more I will teach them."
While it seems kuy teav may continue down the generations, Iris says she doesn't want to push her kids because she doesn't want them to miss out on playing as she did.
"I want them to be more outdoors and learn social and communication skills, something that I struggled with as an adult, rather than live in the kitchen," she says.
"When I look back, even though they were difficult times, all that hard work made me a very resilient person. I learnt to be stronger than all the other kids and that is something good for me now."
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- 1kg pork bone
- 500g pork belly
- 1 onion
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 30g rock sugar
- 3 tsp salt
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 4 litres water
1. Clean the bone.
2. Boil a pot of water and add-in the bone.
3. When it starts to boil, pour the water out and clean the bone with clean water.
4. In a clean pot add the bone, salt, onion, garlic, rock sugar, soy sauce, water, and the pork belly rolled in a tight round shape.
5. Boil on high heat, to begin with, and then turn it down to low heat and cook for 4-5 hours with a half-closed lid.
6. Remove the pork belly after one-and-a-half hours and keep it to the side.
Homemade flat meatball
- 500 g pork neck
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 10 g cornstarch
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 50 ml water
- 1 garlic clove
1. Slice the pork neck in a food processor, add all the ingredients.
2. Blend until it becomes smooth then keep in the fridge for later.
- 1 whole garlic
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
1. Chop up the garlic and add in a pan with vegetable oil on medium heat.
2. Cook until the garlic turns golden brown and transfer to a bowl.
- 500 g bean sprout
- 500 g rice noodle
- 100 g spring onion
1. Soak the rice noodle until soft and set aside.
2. Chop up the spring onion, clean the bean sprout.
1. Flatten the meatball and one by one add them into the soup to cook.
2. Boil the rice noodle for two minutes and add into a bowl.
3. Boil the bean sprout and add on top of the noodles.
4. Slice the pork belly and add to the noodle bowl.
5. Add flat meatballs and broth from the soup.
6. Add spring onion.
7. Add fried garlic and serve with chilli, black pepper and lemon.