Monday, April 7, 2014

Ancestral Foodways: My way

I was honored to be invited by my inimitable friend Loan to give a short talk today on the topic of Food & Culture to her Asian American studies class at the U Mass, Boston through the magic of the internet and the Borg technology of google. This is the talk I gave with additional links and visuals.

Ancestral Foodways: My way

It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way and shootin' no blanks
I just refute what you think, a quite unusual thing
Yes it's a mutual thing 'cos it's the root of all things and we aims to be
Blackalicious feat. Lyrics Born "Do This My Way"

My name is Leilani.  I am Vietnamese American mother, childbirth educator & matrescence doula, and writer.  There’s a lot of other things I do and am but that covers the main points.  I’ll be talking to you today about my blog Real Food, Real Pho and why I write it.


My ma, aunty, big bro & sis, and me

I’m a second/third generation refugee.  My maternal grandparents became refugees for the first time in 1954 leaving North Vietnam to settle in the Central region.  My entire maternal side grandparents, aunties, uncles were sponsored as refugees in April 1975 by my eldest aunty who was married to a US serviceman and living in Honolulu.  My mom was 8 mos pregnant with me at the time.  I was born a few weeks later and we lived there for several years.  My mom owned a mauna pua truck selling siau pau (pork buns), ice cream and candy; nowadays it’s what would be called a food truck and it would be trendy, but back then, it was grey market (not strictly legal) and the city eventually shut them down.

My phamily eventually resettled in San Diego in the 80s because there was not a lot of work in Hawai'i.  It's not paradise when you don't have prospects.  My mom was a single working mom.  We were on food stamps for a number of years.  This was before there were any Vietnamese grocery stores so we ate a lot of american processed food because that is what you could get with food stamps--velveeta, powdered milk, processed food stuff (which means food altered in factories which destroys nutrients, especially the “whites"--white rice, white flour, white sugar).  Even when there was fresh Vietnamese produce and ingredients to be had, american processed food became a regular part of our diet because single mom + three kids = not a lot of time to cook.  We wanted to be like other kids and eat McDonald’s, spaghetti, pizza, soda.  My mom’s cooking too was very fusion which is probably influenced by living in Hawai’i where there is a meld of culture and cuisines; we ate lettuce and greens in our spaghetti.

Eating roasted rice paddy mice
 in the Mekong Delta 2007
f sustainable free range

When I went to college, I double majored in Anthropology and Linguistics and this is when I first started cooking for myself. I later went on to an intensive doctoral program in Anthropology where I focused on the culture of emerging modern society in Vietnam at a time when the market was opening up from state-owned enterprise to more international capital.  As the years went by, I found myself focused more on community organizing where I lived and left academia to become a research analyst for almost a decade, serving grassroots organizations, indigenous groups all over the US, and for a low wage workers union.

For a long time, my philosophy in life was DIE for what I believe in, this was the value I inherited from my biological father, and it was killing me.  I burned out.  So I quit my job to be at home with my daughter and to learn how to LIVE for what I believe in.


A surprising fact is that most of the American population is malnourished and dehydrated in spite of eating so much, because of what they are eating (Standard American Diet or "SAD") is nutritionally empty and/or depletes nutrients.  I was no exception.  I was malnourished which is weird to think since I was not underweight or starving if anything I was thick, but there were signs through food cravings which are a way of one's body telling one that one is need something (example: a craving for carbs/pastries is a really a craving for shortterm energy because you don’t have enough reserves of the long term energy like healthy fat & protein), other signs were the vertical ridges in my teeth & nails, all the health issues I was experiencing, but going back to childhood and fetal development, even my tongue tie, my inherited overbite and lower teeth crowding was an indication of at least three generations of malnutrition.

This widespread phenomenon of malnutrition that comes from eating large quantities of "food" instead of malnutrition from the absence of food as in a famine or poverty, is recent in human history.  It's part of the industrialization of food production.  After centuries of extractive agricultural practices or chemical contamination, the soil is depleted of minerals and nutrients.  Food is being chemically altered if not genetically altered in factories. Vitamins and minerals that are destroyed in the processing are being added back synthetically in the form of vitamin fortification that is not bioavailable (easy for body to assimilate) and contributes to a toxic overload for our livers along with environmental toxins.  Processed food is essentially nutritionally empty.  We’re not taught much about real nutrition.  Popular culture references calories.  Calories are meaningless; it’s the nutrients that matter and where they come from matters most.

There’s this emerging branch of science now called epigenetics and it looks at how environment
(toxins, nutrition or malnutrition) can alter the expression of your genes.  An example would be nutrition and dental formation.  There was a dentist named Weston Price  at the turn of the 20th century who noticed increasing problems with cavities and bite and connected it to the rise of industrially processed food like white flour and sugar.  He travelled all over the world and documented the introduction of processed food and its impact on dental health.  In families where they ate native foods, the children had robust facial structure, straight teeth, few to no dental issues.  In families where they ate processed foods, the children had smaller jaws, overbites/underbites, cavities.  In other words, humans are evolutionarily programmed to have straight teeth that can fit into their jawbones.  No animal species could survive if they didn’t have teeth that were functional.  Dr. Price understood that nutrition was critical in bone formation and to optimal health.  He developed a philosophy that can be paraphrased as “eating what your ancestors ate”.  Nowadays, we have the understanding to say the malnutrition from processed foods affected the epigenetic expression of dental formation and it degenerates with each successive generation.

Stress and psychological trauma is also something that can be inherited behaviorally and epigenetically.  Stress affects the sympathetic system--the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, pituitary gland--which generates the fight, flight or freeze response.  Stress is also changes epigenetic expression and is passed on to the next generation in gene expression as well as behavior.  Scientists have done research on the children of survivors of Nazi death camps on behavioral inheritance of PTSD and more recently on the epigenetics of mice exposed to stress; stress/trauma affects the genes that are inherited by the next generation.  Your parents' experiences and reactions to stress predisposes your own sympathetic system and depletes or inhibits your body’s absorption of nutrients.  So my family history means that I have 150 years (+/-) of colonization and war trauma coded in my DNA.  It’s no surprise that my adrenals (adrenal glands make the master hormones that we need to survive) were worn out; so at my lowest, even though driving in traffic typically makes me anxious, I would experience near accidents and not feel anything.  This wasn’t a zen response.  I could feel a click like an ignition but nothing turned on.  My fight, flight or freeze reaction was not happening.  I didn’t get the burst of adrenaline to help me react to a situation and keep myself safe because my adrenals were not functioning.


So I burned out.  I had developed systemic, auto-immune issues, that’s when your body becomes so stressed out it attacks itself--for example, allergies, skin issues, diabetes, in extreme cases, cancer.  My adrenals just about shut down,  and I was pretty close to being bedridden.  I had barely out enough energy to drag myself out of bed and sludge through my day.  You ever watch Shaun of the Dead?  It was the first zombie romantic comedy.  The opening montage (minus the peppy music)?  The working dead.  That's what it felt like.  Life was flat.  All the ailments I had were beyond the scope of Western medicine to heal; Western medicine is about masking the symptoms, not getting to the root causes.  I had to heal myself.  And I did.  A huge part of that healing process is FOOD.  Food is my medicine. (I believe medicine is anything that heals your body, mind, and spirit/soul; this can be music, talk story, wisdom, plants, love, spiritual/ancestral connection, and food among others.)

I considered myself a healthy eater up to that point.  We ate mostly homemade cooking with a lot of white rice, fresh vegetables and meat at every meal, some processed food everyday; processed food is anything that did not recently come from the earth or an animal.  We didn’t eat too differently from the way we were raised, lots of stir-fries.  But the lifetime of stress, inherited stress from war/refugee trauma in prior generations, coffee/sugar dependence, and processed foods (donuts!) had depleted my body, weakened my organs & systems.

Something had to change and that something was ME.  No one else could tell me how/why.  I was my own personal health investigator.  Over the last 5 years, I tried a lot of holistic alternative medicine like naturopath, chiropractor, muscle testing, acupuncture, osteopath, yoga, breathwork & meditation, read a lot of articles and blogs, reset my circadian rhythm, and those all contributed, but food and more specifically nutrition is where I experienced the most changes.

Instead of popping a multi-vitamin (which I had “allergic” rash reactions to but were really my liver being overloaded with toxins and passing into the blood stream triggering an histamine immune reaction), I had to replenish my nutrients from eating whole, real foods--food that recently came from the earth and from animals, not from a factory or a lab.

homemade dưa chua
pickled mustard greens
I started off eliminating wheat and dairy, and my seasonal allergies went away.  I went organic and my skin, digestion, and hormones improved.  I gave up alcohol, coffee and caffeine (oh this was hard, no more cà phê sữa đá!) and the migraines and vertigo stopped.  I added healthy fats and my brain function and memory came back.  I eliminated sugar and reduced grains, added more veggies, green smoothies, and my blood sugar stabilized and I lost a little weight and girth (really it's volume from inflammation more than weight).  I drank more water spiked with sea salt, and my skin improved and I could sleep at night without waking up from hormonal surges feeling hot, dry & hungry.  I eliminated additives like MSG or preservatives that are neuro-toxic and my mood stabilized, my stress/anxiety levels normalized, the agitation & anger/irritability reduced and sleeping regularized.  I added homemade fermented foods dense with natural probiotics like sauerkraut, pickled mustard greens, and the ridges in my nails have smoothed out.  I stopped eating processed foods, I even gave up supposedly healthy organic processed foods, the organic blue tortilla chips, the organic gluten-free breads because they were just organic empty calories; I gave up most restaurant food because of the sugar and additives.  There’s the saying you are what you eat.  When I eat processed foods, conventionally grown meat, I get sick.
Local sustainably caught
Chinook salmon

Overall, my body was less inflammed which I can quantify by looking at my white blood count which used to be through the roof and are now in the low end of normal.  Along with the loving support of my family, yoga and deep breathing (which not only changes your brainwaves, but also affects epigenetic expression!), my creativity is re-emerging, and I feel whole again.


real phở

When I eliminated wheat and dairy, I thought well, I’ll keep it easy and cook Vietnamese/Asian food following the food philosophy of "Eat what your ancestors ate" because my ancestors were not eating macaroni & cheese from a box.  And you think of Asian food and you think of rice, not wheat.  And then as I started reading the labels, I realized how much processing goes into Vietnamese food--not just MSG, but MSG in all its iterations (hydrolyzed wheat protein, "natural flavor", soy protein, etc), wheat derivatives, refined sugar, preservatives (not just banned formaldehyde, but FDA approved preservatives), food coloring.  This is not how my ancestors ate.  So I had to find ingredients that didn’t contain additives, wheat, dairy, refined sugar, minimally processed.  I had to decolonize my diet.

xôi gấc—red sticky rice in a 
traditional Lao steaming pot
I had to learn how to truly make food from scratch using ancestral foodways that maximize nutrition instead of shortcuts that comes from modern living always being in a hurry and on the go, that can be counter-nutritive.  I couldn’t find a single source for recipes/blogs that made Vietnamese food using whole ingredients and ancestral foodways.  Some ancestral foodways I saw my grandparents practice, other things I pieced together from blogs about homesteading or whole foods cooking.  So that’s when I started blogging, to reclaim and sometimes remake ancestral food ways.  

Sprouted brown rice
I’ll take as an example, rice.  I went from eating white jasmine rice every day 1-2 times a day to eating brown rice, then organic brown rice every day to now eating organic brown rice maybe 2-3 times a week and soaking and sprouting the rice 2-3 days to reduce the anti-nutrients like phytic acid which are inherent in all seeds and to leach out the arsenic from soil contamination that is endemic to all arable land all over the world; seeds contain all the genetic information for new life, so they have innate self-defense in the form of anti-nutrients like phytic acid.  Sprouting changes the rice from a seed to a plant and releasing its nutritional value.  Sprouting is an ancestral foodway that has been lost in the translation/export of food.  I could go on about the globalization and misappropriation of "super foods" and the sometimes fatal stripping of foodways and cultural context but I’ll leave it there.  (My blog post on corn gets into this a bit.)

Growing native corn
I am not a professionally trained chef.  Like most home cooks, I came to cooking as a necessity when I started living on my own in college. I learned by calling my mom on the phone, reading cookbooks, recipes and blogs, through tips from friends and strangers, learned through making mistakes.  I cook for my family, I cook for me, for my community of friends.  For me, it started with phở which I grew up eating at family gatherings every Sunday. But I've experimented with all kinds of cuisines from American to Moroccan to Irish.  I've rendered lard, made corned beef by fermenting organic grass-fed beef over a week; I've made pozole by growing, harvesting and nixtamalizing maize (which is a process of alkalizing the kernels to release the nutrients similar to hominy) and stewing an entire hog's head (which is a very gnarly experience.  The snout!  The teeth! The eyeballs!).  Somethings I've made better than others.  A lot of things I've botched.  But more than expertise I’ve found what matters is the ingredients.  Real food, sustainably grown, tastes better and is more nourishing.  It can be costly, but there are frugal strategies, like growing your own vegetables, joining buying coops and buying straight from the farmer (called Community Supported Agriculture).  Organic, grass-feed beef which can cost up to $25/lb at the store, costs $5/lb buying a sustainably-raised whole steer from a local farmer, and then paying the butcher.  It's more expensive than conventionally raised cows, but I don't get boils from the antibiotics and growth hormones that they feed them (not to mention the stress hormones from their living conditions and manner of slaughter). It’s a damn sight cheaper than the thousands of dollars I was spending on health care, supplements, and short term fixes.


The soul of my cooking is a love of food and family.  For me, cooking Vietnamese food is the way I remember my grandparents who were self-sufficient, subsistence farmers before the wars and who transplanted here to the US, had a subsistence garden no matter where they lived in the hood and carried on foodways and traditions of cooking from their upbringing.  Cooking is how I honor their legacy, and make it meaningful and present for my daughter. There is a story in each meal, a rich history in the making of it, and quality in the eating of it. Taking the time to make something from scratch using ancestral food ways infuses the food with more flavor, more nutrients, more tradition, and more love.

Vietnamese culture is some 4000 years old give or take.  The cuisine is inflected with the rich cultural and historical influences from several millenia of globalization.  The native palate (fish sauce, hot/sour/salty/sweet), Melanesia/Polynesia from antiquity, over two millenia of influence from countries of that are now called India & China, from the conquest and absorption of the Khmer and Champa kingdoms 400 years ago, Portuguese missionizing 16th c-18th c, and then, the less than 150 years of influence from French colonization, a blip of less than 2 decades of American war, more recently aspirations for japanese/korean modernity.

Conventional Bánh da lợn |Pigskin cake
made with white sugar, food coloring
& flavor extract
My Bánh da lợn| PIgskin cake
Made without additives
Food is constantly evolving.  I don’t claim to cook authentic as it was made 100 years ago by my great grandmother. There were adapted foodways that my grandparents practiced that I eschew like food coloring, karo corn syrup or white rice flour in favor of more nutritious practices.  The results are not like we are now used to eating; the appearance, colors, taste, texture are wildly different. And, I live here in the US, this is my context.  I have a food processor and I use it.  I eat kale with everything even my phở.  I have a family to feed and I don’t always have all day to cook so I do make shortcuts, but I try not to compromise on nutrition.  It’s been a learning process for me to challenge myself where I feel daunted (Bánh Chưng! hog’s head!) and to reinvent.  So this blog is my take on ancestral food ways and LIVING for what I believe in.

From the rooter to the tooter--hog's head broth

It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way
Ain't shootin' no blanks
I just refute what you think
A quite unusual thing, Yes it's a mutual thing
Cos it's the root of all things, and we end.

Q &A from the class (paraphrased)

What is organic? 

Organic is a certification that the food is sustainably raised without the use of toxic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and is not genetically modified. 

Do you use measurements? 

I tend to be a freehand, improvisational cook, even when I am using a recipe.  I eyeball it.  The way I learned from my mom was "use a rice bowl (or handful) full of ..."  or "put as much as you like" so it's very relative.  That also means, sometimes my results are not consistent especially with a new recipe.  But then I also have interesting surprises because I don't stick to recipes, even when I use someone else's recipe.  I do try to use measurements for most of my recipes that I share with folks. 

Are nutrient supplements or vitamins bad for you? 

There are two kinds of vitamins--synthetic and food-based.  The synthetic kind are made in a laboratory from who knows what kind of material; it's not as bio-available and usually you see/smell the excess sloughed off in your waste (i.e. that weird urine color/smell).  Food-based vitamins are extracted from real food in a laboratory.  They are better (and more expensive) than synthetic chemicals.  But the best way to get nutrients is from eating real food.  It's like taking bromelain as an anti-inflammatory supplement when you can eat just eat a pineapple instead.  But if you have to choose a vitamin, choose the food-based one.   
4/8/2014 Another thing about vitamins... medicinal herbs are another great way to get vitamins and minerals that are bioavailable and inexpensive.  Dandelion for example (not a weed, but medicine!) is a good source of iron, calcium and potassium and it supports liver function. Dandelions can be eaten (cooked), taken as a infusion/tea, or made into a tincture with brandy.  I take it ever take this whenever I need liver support in flushing out excess toxins because it helps to support the liver. Also it makes a good post-drinking tonic.  Just saying'.  Nettle is another good one that supports the kidneys/adrenals, is great for allergies (seasonal and other) by helping to flush the histamines, and is a milks analgesic (pain relief).  It has Vitamins A, C, D, K, calcium, phosphorus, iron, sulphur.  You can generally find medicinal herbs at a natural food store or online in bulk or in tea packets.  Try to source it organic.  You could also go out to a meadow where you are reasonably sure they do not spray herbicides and harvest it there (this is called wildcrafting or foraging).
Green smoothies are a great way to increase your vegetable intake and boost your vitamin/mineral intake.  I have one for breakfast every day (chia seed, coconut flakes, flax seed, carrot, cucumber, cooked spinach or kale, blueberries, pineapple, a pinch of sea salt, and sometimes ginger powder,).  I cook my leafy greens because of the oxalic acid and other anti-nutrients/goitrogen in raw greens.

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

For resources and further reading, check out the resources section in my FAQs.

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