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  • Writer's pictureVichet Ou

Vichet Eats Things - Khmer Noodles and Janky Grilled Cheese (with Bacon!)

Mei (the Khmer word for "mom," pronounced "my") operated a food cart in front of Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania from about 1991 to 2012.

If you're unfamiliar, Houston Hall is essentially UPenn's student union building - it's made up mostly of event spaces, a food court (that in the 90s was deliciously grungy) and it's right across the street from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A lot of history there in those buildings that has nothing to do with me.

She retired, but it's still in operation by my aunt and uncle in the parking lot of nearby Franklin Field.

Anyway, that cart helped to put me and my brothers through college.

She would get up every day at 3am, drive 30 minutes to my uncle's house in Delco where the cart was based, and prep all the stuff that couldn't be prepped the night before, slicing lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, and the like.

By 5am they'd be set up and ready to go in front of Houston Hall.

3pm, after lunch service, they'd pack up, head back, clean the cart, prep what they could, and mei would be home around 6, cook dinner, and be in bed by 8.

Every weekend from when I was about 5, until I was about 12, me and my middle brother would pile into the car with my mom and dad, make an unnecessary and surprisingly not infanticide inducing amount of noise, and go to my uncle's house and help "pack meat" with my older cousin Dop (rhymes with taupe).

What this meant without all the "huehuehue" energy: we divided up wholesale food service portions of things like sausage links, bacon, meatballs, etc, and divided them into sane portions, putting them into saved pita bread bags to freeze.

Got a 25 lb box of meatballs? Now you've got 5x5 lb bags of the same.

Same went for 25lb boxes of hot dogs, sausage links, and every other meat except bacon.

Aside: my mom would spend Sundays pre-frying 6-7 15lb boxes of bacon, rendering about 60 percent of their fat to dispose, and then freezing the par-cooked bacon in boxes (maybe 100 rashers per box) that they would grab and take each day, where they'd only have to cook each rasher for a minute before it was ready to serve.

You might think this isn't as insane as it sounds, but a busy cart will sell 50 lbs of meatballs, 50 lbs of hot dogs, 50 lbs of sausage, and 90-120 lbs bacon per week.

That's not even counting the eggs. Food service eggs are 15 dozen to a box. Mei's cart would go through 7-9 boxes per WEEK.

That's a lot of meat to pack.

Anyway, this was our weekend ritual: arrive at my Uncle's house at 9am, help him unload from the wholesalers (Jetro, Restaurant Depot, an old school Philly butcher wholesale in Spring Garden called Lipoff's that isn't open anymore but had a no-name brand soda machine with 25 cent black cherry Wishniak that was BOMB), and then get to packing.

It would take us kids a couple hours to get everything packed up, then we'd all have lunch.

We usually had Khmer food. The food that I remember the most was katiew** (Khmer noodle soup).

**Note: the most common Romanization of this food is "kuy tiev", but most of those Romanizations were made with French speakers in mind. If you're an American English speaker, "katiew" is the closest I can manage without introducing a bunch of consonant combinations that don't appear in English.

Pictured: Khmer noodles loaded up with various types of pork, herbs, right before the broth goes in.

It's rice noodles in a pork bone and shrimp broth topped with proteins like shrimp, ground pork and pork organ meat, congealed pig blood is a favorite (just not mine), fried shallots and garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, scallions, Chinese chives, squeeze of lime juice, you can even put on cut up Chinese fried dough (char kwai) - you name it.

My aunt would be making this broth all morning. The whole house would smell like it, along with all the herbs, We'd smell it while packing all that meat down in the basement, and then when we were done, we'd get in the soup line.

Each bowl was a choose-your-own adventure. Amazing.

So, you're probably as frustrated at me now as my mom and aunts and uncles were when I was 5, when I tell you I fucking hated katiew as a kid.

In fact, I hated most foods.

Food mostly got in the way of playing outside, playing video games, or otherwise doing things that didn't involve consuming anything more flavorful than a french fry, and thus gag-inducing.

For context, my favorite Khmer food as a kid was plain rice porridge with just a little bit of shredded spiced pork jerky on top.

What a little asshole. I have to think it was especially frustrating to a generation of people who survived starvation and whose first time in a western supermarket induced uncontrollable sobbing.

Obviously I no longer have this problem - I now have the opposite problem, but this isn't therapy so I won't go into all that.

Anyway, kid Vichet never, EVER finished his noodles. This gourmet shit that's now on everyone's "if you love Pho you've gotta try this" list, was the last thing I wanted to eat.

Of course, my family couldn't risk me dying, so they caved and started making little sides of "American" food for me on weekends.

It was usually grilled cheese. Not too much butter! I like mine "mmm-mmm bland."

Anyways, grilled cheese was easy, cheap, and I would eat it. Win win all around.

Sometimes there was leftover bacon, and we'd get bacon grilled cheese. I think bacon was the only thing with flavor I actually enjoyed until I was maybe 16.

But, one fateful weekend, my family was out of white bread because why the fuck would we have white bread?

You might think the cart had it in stock, but no, all the bread for the cart was delivered by bakeries like Amoroso's the morning they were to be used. Any extra needed to be picked up at the 38th and Spruce Wawa.

Anyway, the bread we happened to have left that weekend was pita bread.

And, to a family of Khmer-American refugees who never ate any of the American food they cooked, and whose only categories of bread were "French Baguette" and "Other", pita might as well have been white bread.

"Fuck it," I assume my aunt was thinking as she fires up the grill in the cart. "It's bread, it's white, he won't know the difference and doesn't like food anyway, little jerkoff."

Anyway, she made a whole plate of grilled cheese on pita with white American cheese, some of them with bacon.

I ate every single piece I could fit into my 35 lb body.

The responsible adults caught on, and that was my lunch every weekend for more than a decade. I'm not exaggerating.

Even after my taste buds woke up, I still enjoy a good, bland grilled cheese on pita bread with bacon. They even added it as a menu item for a while because they made the poor decision of trusting my taste. It sold alright.

Anyway, I make myself a lot more katiew nowadays to reclaim all the Khmer food I missed out on for so long.

But sometimes, a cobbled together "leftovers" meal is what the 5 year old in you*** needs.

***It's a metaphorical 5 year old, DO NOT eat 5 year olds.

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