Cooking with Culture

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cooking with culture
At the International Rescue Committee, Sacramento’s New Roots program, fruits and vegetables are grown by immigrants from Afghanistan and Nepal, China and Iraq, Laos and beyond. Photo by Create & Gather.

For many cultures, food is more than nutrition. It’s tied to celebrations, and it’s the quintessential way to get to know your neighbors and introduce them to new dishes and flavors.

When made with fresh, native ingredients, food is often simmered with medicinal qualities and peppered with tradition. Each bite tells the story of the person who prepared the meal. It’s also a means for people to stay connected to their culture and their memories of home.

For some U.S. immigrants, finding familiar ingredients to cook healthy, everyday staples can be a challenge, leading many to adapt and make dietary sacrifices at big-box supermarkets that aren’t always the healthiest choices. Across Sacramento’s diverse cultural communities, there are expert farmers working the soil, herbalists creating plant based medicines and culture bearers passing down traditional recipes to new generations. Together, they embody food as a sense of pride, endearment and overall wellness. And it all begins with one question: Did you eat?

CRAVING CONNECTION—When she was in first grade, Dr. Susan Chou, a nutrition professor and department chair at American River College, used to sit on long cafeteria benches with her classmates.

Some opened their lunch pails to chocolatey Little Debbie treats with their crinkly wrappers, while others excitedly stacked edible towers out of “cheddar” squares and cold meat coins from bland Lunchables. Chou remembers staring at the food her mom packed for her: fried rice. She felt embarrassment, followed by the sting from all the teasing she received.

“As a child, you’re trying to fit in. So a lot of times you try to stay away from those cultural foods. That was always a struggle for my parents,” Chou says. “If we can expose children to many different types of foods, other kids, whether immigrants or refugees, don’t have to feel embarrassed about what they’re eating. They should be proud. This is what my family has, and it tastes good. They should be proud of their heritage, too.”

Chou emigrated from Taiwan with her parents when she was 2 years old. And although she still remembers her classmates teasing her for her fried rice, she is now introducing her own children to Chinese cooking so they don’t lose their sense of connection to those dishes.

“I find, especially during the pandemic, we’ve been gravitating more toward Chinese food, and I think it’s that sense of comfort. I haven’t seen my parents for two years because they’ve been stuck in Taiwan,” she says. “We don’t want to lose that connection. When my parents are here visiting, my mom prepares all these foods that I don’t usually prepare for the kids. And I’ve been looking up recipes online, preparing more of these foods.”

Living in California, especially here in Sacramento, does come with certain perks. Chou says she can find many of the ingredients for her family’s favorite Chinese dishes at Raley’s. For harder-to-find ingredients such as sticky rice or certain spices, she turns to Asian grocers in South Sacramento, such as 99 Ranch Market. Growing her own is an option, too.

“If you’re growing your own ingredients, your own fruits and vegetables, you have more control over what you’re preparing so it will be healthier,” she says. “Because you have more control over your ingredients, you also get other benefits: that sense of pride that you’re growing this food, that you’re preparing it, and then that connection and comfort of your heritage and your traditions, and that you’re keeping those alive within your community.”

PLANTING NEW ROOTS—On 5½ acres in West Sacramento, Ram Khatiwoda, farm  coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, Sacramento, surveys the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables grown by emigrants from Afghanistan and Nepal, China and Iraq, Laos and beyond.

In 2009, Khatiwoda moved to Sacramento from Nepal with $15 in his pocket and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and English. But as he settled into his new country with his wife and three kids, he noticed his diet drastically changed. He recalls the pain of searching from store to store for certain staples and succumbing to the convenience of fast food. He readily admits he gained weight.

After spending 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, Khatiwoda says he moved to America for a better life and wasn’t about to let his health continue to fade.

“When I came to America, the food I used to eat was lost,” Khatiwoda says. He discovered that the bright red tomatoes piled high in Walmart’s produce department didn’t taste like real tomatoes. Enough was enough. So Khatiwoda organized his community, and they asked IRC to sponsor a plot of land where they could grow fresh ingredients.

IRC’s New Roots program launched in 2016. As farm coordinator, Khatiwoda leads farmer training, teaches about soil ecosystems, pest management and healthy practices, and grows ripe tomatoes bursting with flavor.

The land not only provides the fresh ingredients used in cultural dishes from IRC’s immigrant communities; it’s also a place where people can get out into the sunshine, tend the land and share stories and home-cooked meals.

“This is a good place for socializing, meeting people and understanding what people from different parts of the world eat,” Khatiwoda says. “The land we have provides space for elderly people to come, children to come.” He notes that women from certain cultures, like Afghanistan, are housebound. “When we have a garden, ladies are coming out and sitting there, gardening, talking and sharing stories among themselves. I really believe that it is providing some kind of physical and mental therapy for people who are willing to come out from the walls of their apartment complex.”

A LANGUAGE OF LOVE—When she first arrived in Sacramento, Zion Taddese noticed a lack of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, let alone ones that served the flavors of her native Ethiopia. So she decided to go into business for herself, opening Queen Sheba restaurant in 2007. She believes food is connected to health, spirituality and wellness.

“That’s how I was able to connect to the people: through my culture and my food,” Taddese says.

Taddese began introducing customers to Ethiopian food, made with fresh vegetables and a lot of aromatics. “Our base ingredients are garlic and ginger, and fresh onion and tomatoes,” she says. “We use fresh cabbage, potatoes, carrots, lentils. We use a lot of greens, spinach, all plant-based food.”

Like Khatiwoda, Taddese struggled to find some of the ingredients she grew up cooking with, such as ground chickpeas and berbere, a warm spice blend that includes chilies and cinnamon.

She also had a hard time finding affordable teff, a gluten-free grain that’s rich in nutrients and predominantly grown in Ethiopia. Starting in 2019, with the help of UC Davis’s organic farmers, researchers and Smart Farm technology, Taddese began growing teff on 4 acres located on campus.

Since then, she says, teff has been grown successfully for the first time in California history. She hopes these resources can benefit Ethiopian farmers back home.

“Teff is just an amazing, amazing grain that is out of this world, and it’s also high in fiber, high in protein. Diabetic people can eat it. It doesn’t turn into sugar. It’s just the best thing for you,” she says. “I’m very thankful for my ancestors for coming up with these amazing spices and herbs. We don’t need to add sugar or artificial stuff to eat the food. Whatever the earth gave us is what they use. Always before I eat, I thank God and then my ancestors for my food.”

FOOD AS A LIFELINE—Sharing the food and traditions of her ancestors is one of Jamie Cardenas’ greatest passions. Cardenas owns Magpie Alchemy, a local apothecary that makes all-natural, plant-based skin care and CBD wellness products that are sold at Deeda Salon on Franklin Boulevard near Curtis Park.

Cardenas says it’s her responsibility as a culture bearer to translate what her ancestors couldn’t say and share it with her community.

“In my culture—I’m Filipino—there’s an idea that spirits live in the land, and our ancestors are the spirits. So there are plant ancestors, and we honor them and those who have passed by having rituals with food,” Cardenas says. “To those of us in the diaspora, food is the last thing that gets affected by things like white supremacy and colonization. I truly believe, in a spiritual sense, food is our lifeline.”

Cardenas’ family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. Her grandmother used moringa, known as “the miracle vegetable,” as an ingredient in some of her favorite dishes.

“It’s so beautiful to be able to go to the store in Sacramento and buy it at the grocery store, at the Asian markets,” Cardenas says. “Moringa is one ingredient that I learned from my grandmother, my Mama Mary, that was like her thing. She showed her love and care to our family by growing the plant, by teaching us about it and putting it in our food.”

From a young age, Cardenas was taught that her ancestors live in everything from the earth to the foods that the soil provides. During the pandemic, she turned to those warm dishes that connected her back to her roots, asking her elders to protect her family through foods that wrap her up like a warm blanket with every bite.

“Really what I love is that Filipino food is all about the alchemy of every pleasurable flavor and texture. It’s really a very evolved love language of our people,” Cardenas says. “That connection to our food is beyond just nutritional value. It’s our identity. It’s how we tell our families, ‘I love you.’ In our culture, we don’t say, ‘I love you.’ We say, ‘Did you eat?’”