A Culture of Cooking – Columbus Messenger – Advice Eating

By Dedra Cordle
Staff writer

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Ratha Seng, a 2018 graduate of South-Western Career Academy, recently published a cookbook celebrating a generation of Cambodian refugees and immigrants making a new life in America. Originally developed as a capstone project for Columbus College of Art & Design, the “Tarsu Cookbook” was unveiled during the three-day Khmer New Year celebrations held at the Buddhist Temple (Wat Samakyserirattanaram) in Grove City from April 15-17. Not only did he get good grades in the “Tarsu Cookbook” for his project grade, but he also sold out copies. Seng intends to order another edition and sell it at Chroma, CCAD’s annual student work exhibition on May 13.
One of the most popular events at the Khmer New Year Festival is the performance of Apsara dancers. Apsara dancers are known for their exquisite costumes and intricate movements, especially with their hands.
Orlando Rodriguez (left) and Clay Miesse were just two of hundreds of attendees who enjoyed a variety of traditional Southeast Asian cuisines at the festival.
A group of women participate in a friendly sack race competition.

For Ratha Seng, food and stories are inextricably linked. Some of his earliest memories and happiest moments came through an extensive process of preparing food for the large gatherings his family regularly hosted.

It would be hours before the celebration was due to begin, and their home in Grove City would already be filled with guests. While most of the men could be found in the garage or backyard, frying “obscene amounts of chicken wings,” the women could be found in one central location, standing shoulder to shoulder, peeling, slicing, and dicing all the ingredients needed, to prepare the traditional Cambodian food. Occasionally they engaged in a friendly game of jostling to determine who got to use the mortar and pestle.

“Food preparation could become very competitive,” said Seng, 21.

During this lengthy and sometimes monotonous process of preparing food, the stories began to flow. Some of the guests told about the events in their lives, and others shared the latest news from the lives of those who weren’t there yet.

While much of the discourse was overwhelmingly lighthearted and positive, occasionally the mood shifted and they spoke of more melancholy times.

One of his mother’s favorite dishes for these gatherings was nom pachok, rice noodles served with fish and chicken and a slew of vegetables and bold spices. Every now and then Samantha would talk about her own mother during the preparation process and bemoan the fact that she was never able to learn this beloved recipe – or any traditional Khmer recipe – under her tutelage.

The discussion then turned to how she learned part of the food preparation process by watching elders in a refugee camp prepare a hearty meal from the only ingredients available to them.

“It’s community food,” Samantha would say.

Like Seng’s mother and father, most of her guests had fled the war in Cambodia, or knew someone who had fled, which claimed millions of people through genocide, starvation, or forced labor in the mid to late 1970s. They all knew someone who had been killed; Samantha herself was the only survivor in her family.

Although these heavy subjects were not regularly raised at the celebratory gatherings, people always made room there for someone who wished to share these memories. That way they could give them a lot of comfort to pick them up again.

When the grief subsided, they would resume their chores so that they could all fill their bellies with the nourishment of their homeland and new home. Then they would revel in the appreciation that they were alive, that they were alive, and that they had so much left to live.

Witnessing those complicated memories and complex moments had a profound and lasting impact on his life, Seng said.

“I grew up learning lessons about triumph, perseverance, strength and never giving up.”

He said he’s always wanted to find a way to give back to his community — to pay homage to the elders who worked so hard to build a better life for his generation — but he’s at a loss as to what to do.

A school project helped him find the perfect way to achieve this goal.

A 2018 South-Western Career Academy graduate, Seng has been studying advertising and graphic design at Columbus College of Art & Design for the past two years. As part of his senior capstone project – “the most important project of my academic career,” he explained – he was tasked with creating an experience for an audience that shared a passion for the chosen subject.

He originally envisioned an event in a hall with a traditional Khmer buffet and a live band featuring his mother. He quickly came to the realization that the dream was not meant to be.

“That was outside of my scope and budget,” he said.

Recalling the important connection between food and stories, he developed the idea for a cookbook featuring recipes from members of the local Khmer community. He envisioned interviews with the chefs to document the stories behind their personal connection to their favorite dish.

He wanted it to be titled “Tarsu Cookbook” because he felt that word really encapsulates who they are as people.

“Tarsu means perseverance, solidarity, community and love.”

Although Seng believed he could competently complete this ambitious project, he admitted that he had some reservations about the reception of his idea by the community. However, he said that as he began to explain his vision, they opened up in the most unexpected way.

“Everyone I spoke to was so excited to share something,” he said. “They wanted to pass the recipes down to my generation. They wanted to teach, spread the culture, spread the love.”

Over the course of several months, Seng interviewed 10 people for the “Tarsu Cookbook” and amassed 21 recipes ranging from generational dishes like nom pachok and amok to some more modern dishes inspired by “YouTube moms”. He videotaped the interviews and the process of preparing the food. He also made professional portraits of the chefs. His mother helped provide translations for the project.

The “Tarsu Cookbook” was launched during the Khmer New Year celebrations held April 15-17 at the Buddhist Temple (Wat Samakyserirattanaram) in Grove City. Its first edition of 50 copies quickly sold out.

Seng said he was overwhelmed by the community’s response to the cookbook, which he called his participation one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

“The support for my project was more than I could have ever imagined,” he said. “The event was packed with people celebrating in anticipation, and I felt my entire community cheer me up in a way I had never felt before.

“This project was a love letter to my people and what I got back was the same love multiplied by 1000. There are not enough words to describe the joy I feel.”

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