Are your kids fussy when it comes to eating? Well, imagine having to cook for three dozen children and young adults who are as fussy as yours, three times a day, every day, and all on your own. This is the unenviable task of our chef extraordinaire and surrogate mother, Ma Khun, whose invaluable contribution to Little Hearts we highlight in today’s post.
Ma Khun – her full name is Soam Sokhuntea, but everyone has called her Khun since childhood – has been a mainstay of the Little Hearts staff for over nine years. She hails from Kampong Chhnang province, just north of Phnom Penh, where she had been a rice seller before meeting Tony. She came to Little Hearts hoping to be employed as a cook, but as that position was taken at the time, Tony hired her to be a caretaker, watching the children from dawn to dusk.
She remembers tears welling up in her eyes while she was riding on the Arey Ksat ferry on her way to Little Hearts for the first time, because she knew that this would be a pivotal moment in her life. ‘I was so poor,’ she recalls, ‘that I had never even seen a $100 bill before. I knew my new job taking care of all these children would be the beginning of something really special.’
Since then, Ma Khun has had various different roles at Little Hearts, transitioning seamlessly from caretaker to full-time cook when the position was vacant again, and eventually to laundress, a function she fulfilled throughout the pandemic. Since the departure last year of our former chef, Reaksmey, she is once again in charge of the kitchen, where she feels she truly belongs. Meanwhile, laundry duties have been taken over by our newest hire, Nat.
Ma Khun’s day starts extremely early. When the children are on their morning school rotation,* she rises as early as 3 am to help get them ready for school. Breakfast must be prepared and served by 5 am so that the kids can make it to school (across the river in Phnom Penh) on time.
Once breakfast is done, the kitchen has been cleaned and the kids are off to school by tuk-tuk or bicycle, it’s time for Ma Khun to head to the market. Her regular motorcycle taxi driver picks her up outside the gate and drives her to the nearby Hanuman wet market, where she must purchase all the meat or fish, vegetables and fruits needed for the day’s lunch and dinner, as well as the following morning’s breakfast – all on a carefully managed budget of about $60/day. Typically, she will purchase 5 kg of protein (chicken, pork or fish) and another 10-15 kg of fruits and vegetables. Yes, that’s just for one day, and it doesn’t include the rice, of which we consume some 250 kg per month! (Rice is purchased separately or provided in bulk by our donors.)
With all the groceries loaded in a big basket, which somehow also fits on the motorcycle taxi, Ma Khun returns and immediately starts preparations for lunch, which may be as early as 11.15 am if the kids are on an afternoon rotation, and 12 o’clock otherwise. After the lunch plates have been cleared, there is about an hour to rest before dinner prep starts, with the aim of having the evening meal ready by 6 pm.
After dinner, the children wash their own dishes, so Ma Khun is finally done with her work. Does she watch TV then, or leave the campus to meet up with friends? Not at all, she says. She is usually so tired that she’s ready for bed by 7 pm – but not before she has made a mental note of what she will cook the following day, so that she can be ready for the next morning’s market run.
On weekends, at least, Ma Khun gets some well-deserved rest as our part-time cook, Keo, takes over. If she feels up to it, Ma Khun’s favourite weekend activity is to visit her grown-up children, some of whom live in Phnom Penh, and her three grandchildren. (Ma Khun is either 56 or 57 years old. Nobody knows for sure, as there is some disagreement between her birth certificate and what the monks from her hometown’s pagoda recorded at her birth.)
For Ma Khun, the best reward for her hard work is watching the children grow up strong and healthy. That’s why cooking makes her happy, she says. What makes her unhappy? When the kids complain about the food, of course. Like every other mother and cook in the world, Ma Khun’s biggest worry is how to make sure that the kids eat full, nutritious meals, including that dreaded ingredient – vegetables. She incorporates plenty of veggies in her dishes, including those grown right here in Little Hearts’ greenhouse, but getting the kids to eat them… that’s another story.
‘If Tony is here at mealtimes, they make a show of eating their vegetables – most of them, anyway,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘But when he’s not around…’
What would the kids eat rather than vegetables? ‘Well,’ she scoffs, ‘if I made a stir-fry with no vegetables at all, just chicken or pork… Yeah, that they would eat without a fuss!’
Even with this challenge, so typical of child-rearing everywhere, Ma Khun is proud that very little food goes to waste at Little Hearts. One way or another, and with much cajoling, the kids end up eating almost everything. ‘At the end of the meal,’ she beams, ‘there is so little food wasted that you could hold it all in your cupped hands, even though there are almost 40 people eating.’ (And it’s not really wasted, by the way. It’s fed to the neighbour’s chickens.)
And what does Ma Khun like to cook for herself? What is her own favourite dish? She prefers a hearty, Khmer-style soup known as samlor. Does she ever prepare it for the kids at Little Hearts? ‘Of course not,’ she replies with a smirk. ‘It’s full of vegetables!’
Thank you, Ma Khun, for your many years of dedicated service to Little Hearts and for the loving care with which you feed us all every day.
* Most Cambodian children attend school on an alternating monthly schedule – one month in the morning, the following month in the afternoon.