Heng Phala is shown preparing lunch in the cooking corner of the apartment she shared with her son and mother. This photo was taken in 2004, when Phala had been HIV positive for about two years before she began taking medicine in preparation for ARV treatment. Phala thought she had been infected by her husband, who left her. She died the following year, leaving her 2-year-old son in the care of her mother, who lived in a crowded neighborhood on the edge of Phnom Penh. When we last saw them, Phala’s mother worried about feeding her grandson.
All this month, Words Without Borders is running a special issue on food. When the editors of the WWB Blog asked me to write about Cambodia, I thought first of hunger. Certainly, I have indulgent recollections of Khmer soups and curries, grilled fish and banana-flower salads and the sweetest mangoes of February. But when I think Cambodia and I think food, I almost instinctively think hunger. Hunger, because itâ€”more than sweet or sour, bitter or saltâ€”is what so many Cambodians taste first in the morning and last at night.
I remember meeting a social worker named Kim Sophornn, who works with villagers who suffer from mental health problems. I wrote about Kim in my book, and about something he told me that has stuck with me ever since: 70 percent of Cambodians worry about what they will eat tomorrow, 25 percent worry about food next week and only 5 percent never worry at all. When most Cambodians think about food, they think about survival.