"It's a Cambodian dish, like a Cambodian fish stew," he says. "Ground fish. Coconut. We serve it with green papaya. You know, Hà Tiên is on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. I was born in Cambodia."
"Really?" I've forgotten to wonder whether or not I'm really the first customer to eat his Cambodian fish stew. Now I want to ask him what this strange ingredient in my Khmer cookbook is. When asked, Google returns only passages of the text of the very same cookbook. But he's already started on his family history.
From China to Cambodia to Vietnam to the U.S., this man has plucked languages and culinary traditions up from the ground wherever he's been. His restaurant is a cacophony of tongues, changing in an instant depending on who's speaking or who's listening. "I feel Chinese in my blood, but I like Vietnamese food," he says a little sheepishly laughing.
"Me too!" I say with feeling, trying to convey how abnormally much this is true. I mean, not that I feel Chinese in my blood. I feel Vietnamese in my blood sometimes. Like all of it is my comfort food. Like I grew up eating it, even though in reality I first had it when I was twenty-three.
The mystery Khmer dish, the bún nước kèn, comes out of the kitchen (perhaps for the first time) darkly steaming and wafting the scent of something akin to Thai fish cakes. Alongside it is a boat-shaped plate of greenish-yellow papaya, jalapeños, cucumbers, and rau răm. This in addition, of course, to the regular old giant plate of herbs that accompanies everything else - the basil, the mint, the fish-mint, the kitchen sink.
I can't relate it to any familiar dish, really, without seeming uncomplimentary, though this isn't at all my intent. The texture is peculiar, like if you dissolved sausage in milk. Lumpy oatmeal? No no, ground beef in pasta sauce! But strands of noodles come poking through and scatter the lumps, which, despite their soaked sausage visage, taste coconutty and vibrant. The fish flavor is somehow both fresh and a little smoky, giving off the taste impression of jerky while maintaining moistness. I dump all the veggies in and quickly lose track of what is a noodle, what is a papaya spear, and what is a bean sprout, leaving the surprise for my teeth to figure out.
It should probably go without saying how delicious it is, how much I savor it, returning to Asia behind my eyelids as I chew.
"Can you eat spicy food?" the owner says, returning to me just as I'm starting to lose focus. "Cambodians do it like this: chew on a pepper between bites. Spoon. Bite on pepper. Spoon. Bite on pepper." And he sets down a plate of little red bird peppers in front of me.