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Asian + American

Ethan Watters | January 11, 2024

People | The Cooking & Culture Project

Traditional cuisines speak with heart, history and wisdom in ways we can all understand.

A Lunchbox Moment

Chef Christina Nguyen, chef and owner of Hai Hai restaurant in Minneapolis, has her own painful memories of elementary school lunchrooms. Her parents were evacuated from Vietnam as the Communist Party took over in 1975. Nguyen also went to a school where few other kids looked like her, and she struggled to fit in.

“I think a lot of children of immigrant parents have a lunchbox moment. I definitely had mine,” says Nguyen. She remembers opening the containers from home and the smell of fish sauce and shrimp paste attracting unwanted attention. She also remembers sometimes throwing out her mother’s food to avoid embarrassment.

Cooking and Culture profiled chef Tiffany Alexandria in her herb garden

For both Nguyen and Vang, it took years to fully embrace their family traditions as a source for culinary inspiration. They began their cooking careers exploring other cultures. Nguyen opened a food truck with her husband serving arepas, a traditionally South American food made of maize dough stuffed with filling. Vang’s career took him even farther afield, working in Italian, French and TexMex restaurants.

A New Culture Means A New Love of Tradition

Food entrepreneur Tiffany Alexandria moved from Taiwan to the States when she was 26, so she doesn’t have the lunch box moment. But it took moving to a new culture for her to find her passion for Taiwanese food. “When I lived in Taiwan, I often liked to cook Western food like pies, roasted turkey and pasta,” she remembers. “It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest that I began a deep dive into my own culture and its cooking traditions. Up untiI then, I think I took it for granted.”

Shortly after moving to her new home in Rochester, Minn., five years ago, she realized most people had little knowledge of Taiwanese cuisine. More times than she can count she’s had to correct people who confused Taiwanese food with Thai food. Working as a recipe creator, photographer and storyteller, Alexandria became a one-woman marketing team for Taiwanese culture. She’s hosted cooking classes and pop-up dining experiences, partnered with local farmers markets and restaurants, and helped develop products and food brands. In her business, CHOOCHOO-ca-CHEW, she tells visual stories via food photography, words and short videos.

Headshot of Cooking and Culture profiled chef Christina Nguyen

“There’s a memory and feeling behind each dish I share,” she says. “Sometimes I think I cook for nostalgia. I want to recreate a memory and a story behind each dish.”

For all three of these chefs, cooking is a way to have a conversation about culture. Sharing food becomes a tangible way to discuss issues of identity and belonging that are often frustratingly hard to articulate. Stereotypes and misconceptions can exist like ghosts in a room. But food is its own language, and these chefs cook as a way of telling their own personal stories. The dishes they offer say: This is who I am. This is where I’m from.