UC Berkeley students, alumni strive to preserve ethnic cultures through recipes for new mothers

Titi Mary Tran/Nguoi-Viet English

WESTMINSTER, California (NV) – In an effort to preserve traditional knowledge, the Asian American Pacific Islander Health Research Group at UC Berkeley has published a booklet of collective folklore recipes in seven languages to give cooking advice to new mothers.

“The idea started in the fall of 2014 when I went to a student info session and met Marilyn P. Wong, a retired physician. Ms. Wong told a story [about] when her daughter gave birth and she really didn’t know any traditional recipes to cook for her daughter,” said Khanh Hoa Nguyen, a 2016 Berkeley graduate. Then she recalled [some dishes] her grandmother cooked. … But when it comes to her generation, she did not know of any recipes.”

Wong’s inspiration spurred the Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. The goal: for the diverse student body at Berkeley to come together and collect recipes from their relatives that could be passed down through generations.

“My sister just gave birth a few months ago, and my mom was cooking something for her. I thought I could introduce my mom. That’s what I did, and I joined the Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project,” Nguyen said.

After two years of collecting recipes, cooking and tasting the meals, taking pictures of the dishes, posting recipes on their website and leading an outreach to professors on campus, Nguyen and a handful of other students in the group decided to print and distribute the recipes to mothers from under-served ethnic populations that do not have access to traditional folklore recipes.

Green papaya soup with slow-cooked pig feet, one of the dishes that helps mothers with breast milk's nourishment. (Photo: Khanh Hoa Nguyen)
Green papaya soup with slow-cooked pig feet, one of the dishes that helps mothers with breast milk’s nourishment. (Photo courtesy: Khanh Hoa Nguyen)

The booklet includes 17 recipes from Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Filipino, Korean and Chinese contributors.

But with financial struggles, the group couldn’t put the booklet in as many hands as it wanted.

Then Khanh Hoa Nguyen met Kristine Nguyen, a professional crowd-funding organizer. Kristine Nguyen, a 2011 Berkeley graduate who also is a member of the Asian American Pacific Islander Health Research Group, teamed with Khanh Hoa Nguyen to crowdfund through UC Berkeley website.

“Even though there is already a book[-let], they still want to do it at a larger scale. They want to go to clinics that serve low-income communities, especially Asian American women who might not have access to information, and who are either culturally or linguistically isolated,” Kristine Nguyen said.

“Our initial goal was $3,000 and we raised that in two days. I thought it would take us a whole month. People were saying, ‘I wish I had this when I was pregnant,’ or ‘I want to send this to a friend whom I know is pregnant, etc.’ Or they just recognize the importance to preserving the cultural information, and they just really like this project. And who doesn’t like food?”

Thirty recipes were gathered but only 17 were included.

“We looked at the ones that were most complete. Sometimes the recipes are not well explained. We wanted to take pictures of our food. We actually cooked these dishes. So for some of these recipes, it was difficult to find the ingredients, which might be very common in home countries but not in the United States,” Khanh Hoa Nguyen said. “So mostly it depended how accessible the ingredients are that we chose the dishes.”

Reflecting on her experiences with the booklet project, Khanh Hoa Nguyen said: “I hope the older Vietnamese generations will continue to share their culture and experiences with the younger generation because it is going to be very valuable to them when the younger generation grows up, whether to attend college or [move up] in their career. For me, I not only think a lot about my experiences but also about my mother, my grandmother’s experiences and what they went through. That makes me value the Vietnamese culture a lot. … A lot of time we think we have to do something really big to impress other people, but you can start with something small, work your way up and make it really big and really yours.”

Note: For more information about the project and how to support it, please send messages to [email protected], or visit https://aapihrg.berkeley.edu


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