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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 07:51 pm

Food for hope

Local restaurateurs plan fundraiser to support Cambodian development

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Experiencing Loneth Soares’ cheerful personality and hearing her infectious laugh, you’d never guess that her childhood was filled with terror, trial, and hardship — but it was.
Loneth was born in Cambodia, and the Vietnam War began spilling over into Cambodia during her earliest years. When that war finally ended, however, the horrors in Cambodia only worsened with the rise of the murderous Pol Pot. Many Westerners have heard “Khmer” only as a part of “Khmer Rouge,” the forces under the leadership of Pol Pot who committed horrible atrocities in their attempt to establish their extremist idea of a communist agrarian state. The Khmer, however, were one of the original peoples of Southeast Asia, coming to that region more than 2,000 years ago. By the ninth century a group of Khmer city-states had coalesced into the kingdom that eventually became known as Cambodia or Kampuchea. Khmer civilization, influenced by the culture and religions of India, was sophisticated and complex. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Cambodia, along with Vietnam and Laos, was colonized by the French, who added their influence to the region. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did their best to destroy the Khmer people and their culture. They nearly succeeded: An estimated 1 million to 2 million people died in the “killing fields” of Cambodia during the four years of the reign of terror. Those killing fields were forced-labor camps where relocated people were made to work — usually in rice paddies — from dawn to dark. Food was a major preoccupation because there was so little of it. The members of Loneth’s family were among those who were essentially slave laborers. “All we had was rice soup,” her mother, Hoeun, tells me. Pointing to my 16-ounce water glass, she says, “That much rice would make soup for 60 people.”
Starvation took as many lives as Khmer Rouge violence did. Loneth, childishly stubborn, often refused to eat the horrible watery soup and became so malnourished that her hair fell out. Her mother tried to help by working harder: “They made us start at 5 a.m.,” says this courageous woman, who’d never before worked in a field, “but I’d start at 4 so that maybe they’d give me a bit of something besides the soup for her to eat.”
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime fell and began guerrilla warfare against the Vietnamese Communists who’d taken over. In the ensuing chaos, Loneth’s family escaped, walking into Thailand with only the ragged clothes they were wearing. The next years were spent in a series of refugee camps, first in Thailand (where Loneth’s brother was born) and eventually in the Philippines. Though it was an improvement over forced labor camps, it was still a life of bare subsistence. In 1983, Loneth’s family was sponsored into the U.S. Arriving in Denver, the family still had only the clothes on their backs. “We didn’t even have real shoes,” Loneth says, “only thin plastic flip-flops — but at least we had a safe place to sleep.”
Twenty-five years later, Loneth is living in Springfield, having moved here in 2000 with her husband, Indian-born Charles Soares, chef/owner of Gateway to India and co-owner of the new Charles and Limey’s restaurant. Her parents, who since retirement had divided their time between Springfield and Colorado, returned to their homeland six months ago. Cambodia’s situation has only recently begun to improve. Trade and tourism are on the rise. Foreign investment is flowing into the country, mainly from China and Korea. Though hardly a model democracy, the government is again a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister and elections. But Cambodia remains a devastated country. Fully 90 percent of the population is desperately poor. Most of those foreign dollars are spent buying up land (causing inflation, especially in food prices) and building factories (taking advantage of labor even cheaper than China’s). Loneth’s parents returned in part to help surviving relatives and friends, buying for them five pigs and hundreds of chickens and stocking a pond with fish.  Loneth also began looking for a way to help. “Living in those refugee camps, I thought by the time I was grown up everything would be all better,” she says with a rueful laugh, “but there’s still so much need.”
Last summer, Loneth found the opportunity she’d been seeking in conversations with Tara Steinberg. Steinberg, a college student working as a server at Gateway, mentioned wanting a service experience abroad, perhaps in the Peace Corps. “You should go to Cambodia,” Loneth told her. Soon the discussions grew to involve another college student, Kate Rolands. As the three women talked, they decided that the most effective thing they could do would be to start a school to teach Cambodian children English — specifically, conversational English. Cambodia has public schools, but attendance isn’t mandatory, and teachers are so poorly paid that they often resort to selling lesson plans to students. Learning English would give students the best chance of getting good jobs. It was Hoeun who, hearing in a phone call about the trio’s wishful plan, turned it into a practical possibility: “Why go to the trouble and expense of setting up a school? Why not work with an established school — the school we have right here in Pursat?” That school has more than 200 students, ages 7-14. Hoeun’s idea was ideal in more ways than one: She’d be on hand to help smooth the way and get things organized. The region of Pursat is even more impoverished than other parts of Cambodia simply because it was the last to be relinquished by the Khmer Rouge. Finally, the potential for good service jobs for English-speakers is high in Pursat because it’s on the route for tourists traveling from the capital city, Phnom Penh, to Cambodia’s primary attraction, the magnificent ruins of the ancient temple city Angkor Wat. Steinberg and Rolands returned to college. Loneth got things rolling, enlisting the help of Springfield friends, including Frank Daigh as treasurer and Donna Ginther, an experienced grant writer. The fledgling group formally registered as a not-for-profit, Hope Through Education.
Hope Through Education is planning a fundraiser to help finance the group’s first mission — expenses for the two college students — to Cambodia next June. Loneth, Steinberg, Rolands, and Ginther will meet with school administrators, find host families, and get everything ready to begin teaching at the start of a new school year. The plan is to cover the expenses of Steinberg, Rolands, and, with any luck, other volunteers during their teaching stints, though they won’t receive salaries. The fundraiser will be held 3-5 p.m. Sunday, April 13, at Charles and Limey’s (620 S. First St., 217-522-6300). Dancers from the Chicago-based Cambodian Association of Illinois will perform, and the event will also feature a silent auction of Cambodian stone sculptures and relics. Best of all, Hoeun, back in the U.S. for a visit, is in charge of the food.
The full menu is in the final planning stages, but I was recently given a sampling. Chicken stir-fried in a spice paste fragrant with lemongrass, garlic, and peanuts was fantastic, as was a brothy coconut curry filled with rice noodles, pork, and bamboo shoots. Dessert was a sticky rice/coconut pudding with beans that added a surprisingly nutlike crunchiness. Sure to be on the final menu is lap, a cool beef salad that’s eaten in lettuce cups. April 13 just happens to be the date of the Cambodian New Year, and several traditional New Year’s dishes will be served as well.  Hope Through Education promises to provide a day of feasting and fun here in Springfield on April 13 and hope for a better life for Cambodian children.
Tickets are $55. Information and reservations may be had by calling Gateway to India at 217-726-6890 or by leaving a message at 217-698-3919.
Cambodian Cuisine

All of the countries of the Southeast Asian peninsula — Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Vietnam, and Laos — share a common flavor palate: hot chiles, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and other aromatic herbs and spices. Often those flavors are combined in curries that, though quite different from Indian curries, are descended from them. Rice, the staple starch, appears in many varieties and forms, including noodles. Saltiness comes primarily from fish sauce; sweetness from sugar, especially palm sugar; and sourness from lemons, limes, and vinegars. Meat, fish, and poultry are eaten sparingly, if at all: Buddhism is a primary religion, so many people in the region are vegetarians. Speaking of vegetables (and fruits), they range from tropical exotics unknown to most Westerners, such as river weed and the odiferous, prickly durian, to familiar potatoes and onions. In different countries or regions, flavors are balanced and ingredients used in unique ways. Khmer home cooking is known for the use of salty fish or shrimp paste, as well as the ubiquitous fish sauce, to season food. Khmers doesn’t have the strong vegetarian tradition found in other areas of Southeast Asia, but vegetables, both fresh and cooked, still play a major role. There’s less chile heat and less sweetness than in other regions but more sour and citrus flavors. Curry pastes are usually made fresh, pounded in stone mortars, and feature a dominant note of lemongrass. Coconut milk is the only milk used. Vinegar, fish sauce, and thinly sliced fresh chiles are usually offered at the table as condiments to add to taste. An interesting feature of Khmer cuisine is the use of ginger as a vegetable rather than just a flavoring. This quick and simple preparation is for the true ginger lover. It’s absolutely crucial that the ginger be fresh — firm, with no wrinkles.
Khmer Ginger and Beef Stir-Fry
Adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
3/4 pound boneless sirloin 1/2 pound gingerroot, as fresh as possible 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably peanut 1 tablespoon minced garlic 2 tablespoons fish sauce 1 tablespoon palm sugar or light-brown sugar
Slice the beef as thinly as possible. This is easiest if the meat is partially frozen. Set the beef aside. Peel the ginger by scraping it with the tip of a spoon. Cut into it thin slices, then stack the slices a few at a time and cut them into matchstick slivers. There should be approximately 2 cups. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds just until it starts to turn golden. Add the meat and increase the heat to high. Stir the meat with your spatula so that the slices don’t stick together and cook until the meat begins to change color. Sprinkle the fish sauce and sugar over the meat, add the ginger, and stir-fry, tossing constantly, until the ginger is tender, four or five minutes. Serve immediately with rice. Makes four servings.
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