Melamine plates

Short plastic stools sat tucked under fold-out metal tables, with the early evening as dark as pitch yet still warm. A naked bulb hanging from a sagging wire lit the roadside stand to illuminate the giant wok over a flame cooking beef and onions, sauce from a sachet, rice from a large cauldron kept to the side. These naked bulbs from sagging wires lined the streets and lit up the market opposite. Motorbikes weaved; the tuk-tuks with their canopies and the flame red frames and brown leather seats trundled along; pale trucks with families sat on the backs crept past. The river, a still, broad band of black glass, reflected the lights from either side. Then came the food served on scratched melamine plates along with little pots of pepper and lime and two chopsticks stuck together in a plastic wrapper. Moths fluttered and cats wandered.

Months later and back in England, the early evening was slowly darkening and chilling. I had invited people over for some Cambodian cuisine, an exotic luxury. The polished pine floors and polished pine Welsh-dresser with ceramic ornaments and the polished upright piano against the wall flanked the pine dining table. My mum had laid out the table-cloth, bought in Phnom Penh: rich blue with Angkor Wat running down the middle. Covering the cloth were Marks and Spencer placemats and John Lewis cutlery; crystal wine glasses, which my mum had filled with serviettes. (She was proud of them; she had bought them in Provence.) The glasses were later filled with something from the Sunday Times Wine Club.

The cloth and the recipes were Cambodian, but the melamine plates were six thousand miles away.


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