This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015.
"I'm from Fallujah," says Mohammed. "The worst place on Earth."
He is standing in his family's restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia nearly two years after escaping the bombs and torn skies back home. None of them had experience running a restaurant but Taste of the Middle East has become the venue of choice for the city's Middle Eastern food fans.
It's all down to Mohammed's mother Muna's home cooking. She never trained as a chef but raising five hungry boys provided all the experience she needs to dish out crowd-pleasing bowls of , biryani, and creamy hummus to a mix of expats and locals.
"I don't know what is special about my mum," says Mohammed, the eldest son who—as the family's best English speaker—has been given the job of press officer for the day. "We tried to cook the dishes ourselves using her recipes but they never taste as good."
There's nothing fancy about Muna's cooking, it's just imbued with the ineffable something home-cooked food has that proves impossible to mimic. Perhaps that's why she doesn't mind giving me her recipes—she knows I don't stand a chance of doing it better.
In the morning, Muna cooks Iraqi biryani using saffron ordered from Malaysia. A lot of her ingredients come from Malaysia. While Cambodia has a Muslim minority, their small markets can't provide the range of Halal ingredients she needs.
"We even buy the cooking oil from Malaysia," explains Mohammed. "Because here they sometimes mix in pork fat."
Mohammed's father Fahram, a former blacksmith, built their kitchen oven. Cambodians never use ovens and most kitchens only come with gas hobs. Fahram's oven looks like a metal cabinet. In fact, it is a metal cabinet. Inside there is a gas pipe with a row of holes like a flute. Once lit, this baby can cook a tabsi—a stout dish of potatoes, onions, and meat—in 30 minutes.
Similarly scorching fires burned the family's home town of Fallujah. It has been engulfed in fighting since the US-led invasion in 2003. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Fahram described how American soldiers broke down his door on several occasions looking for militants.
But it wasn't until the town was swallowed by the black hate of ISIS in January 2014 that the family fled.
"First, we tried to escape to the north of Iraq," says Mohammed. "But we had to get a visa every two weeks to stay there—just imagine, in your own country!"
The flow of internal refugees drove up rent prices.
"We were paying $800 a month for a single room," he adds.
By this time Fahram was in Malaysia studying for an MA at the International Islamic University. He used government connections to bribe his family out of the warzone. They joined him in Malaysia and eventually relocated to Cambodia where it is easier to get visas.
"My dad is the only one who likes living here," says Mohammed. "But it's been especially hard on my mum; she doesn't speak English and there are only three Arabic families in town."
Muna doesn't let the immensity of her isolation show. She smiles and chops vegetables, the feminine core of a male-dominated family.
Yasif, the third son arrives. He's 18 and looks like an Italian footballer with long hair and a lean physique. He scoops dough out of a tub and rolls it into balls. He makes traditional flatbread every day and, like his father's oven, has had to improvise a cooker from an upturned wok placed over a gas ring. The bread is positioned on the top and cooks in minutes—perfect for building badboy kebabs.
Yasif also makes dips fresh every day: smoky baba ghanouj and hummus.
"We all help our mum," says Mohammed. "Apart from my brother Ahmed, he never helps because he is the second son."
Mohammed tells me that in Iraqi tradition the second son is not expected to help but I couldn't corroborate this further. The youngest two boys help seat guests.
That evening, I return for dinner. We order too much and it all looks so good. Rich tomato tabsi, fragrant tabbouleh and Maklubah—a thousand year-old recipe in which rice and vegetables are piled on top of a slow roasting chicken. Finally, homemade baklava leaves us licking syrup from greasy fingertips.
We pull away in a tuk-tuk and look back. Mohammed is waving us off.