By Dedra Cordle
Food and stories are intrinsically linked in the mind of Ratha Seng. Some of her earliest memories and most treasured moments were created through an extensive meal preparation process for the large gatherings her family regularly hosted.
It would be hours before the celebration started and their house in Grove City would already be filled with guests. While most of the men were in the garage or the backyard frying “obscene amounts of chicken wings”, the women were in a central location where they stood side by side to peel, slice and dice all the ingredients. necessary to make the traditional Cambodian fare. Occasionally they would engage in a friendly game of body shoving to determine who should use the mortar and pestle.
“Food preparation could get very competitive,” said Seng, 21.
It was during this long and sometimes monotonous meal preparation process that the stories began to flow. Some of the guests would share the events of their lives, and others would share the latest news from the lives of those who were not yet present.
While much of the speech was extremely light and positive, sometimes the mood changed and they talked about more melancholic moments.
One of her mother’s favorite dishes to prepare for these gatherings was Nom Pachok, rice noodles served with fish and chicken and a host of vegetables and rich spices. Occasionally, during the preparation process, Samantha would talk about her own mother and lament the fact that she had never been able to learn this beloved recipe – or any traditional Khmer recipe – under her tutelage.
The discussion then revolved around how she learned part of the meal preparation process by watching the elders of a refugee camp prepare a hearty dish using the only ingredients available to them.
“It’s solidarity food”, said Samantha.
Like Seng’s mother and father, the majority of their guests had fled, or knew someone who had fled, the Cambodian war that claimed millions of lives through genocide, starvation or forced labor from the mid to late 1970s. They all knew someone who had been killed; Samantha herself was the sole survivor of her family.
Although these heavy topics were not regularly discussed at festive gatherings, people always made room there for someone who wanted to share these memories. In this way, they could give them a lot of comfort in order to lift them up.
When the grief subsided, they would continue with their tasks so that they could all fill their bellies with the food of their native land and their new homeland. Then they reveled in being alive, that they were living and that they still had so much to live.
Witnessing these complicated memories and complex moments had a deep and lasting impact on his life, Seng said.
“I grew up learning lessons about triumphs, perseverance, strength and never giving up.”
He said he always wanted to find a way to give back to his community – to pay tribute to the elders who worked so hard to build a better life for his generation – but he didn’t know what he could do. .
A school project helped him discover the perfect way to achieve this goal.
For the past two years, Seng, a 2018 graduate of South-Western Career Academy, has been studying advertising and graphic design at Columbus College of Art & Design. As part of his senior capstone project — “the most important project of my college career,” he explained — he was tasked with creating an experience for an audience who shared a passion for the chosen topic.
Initially, he envisioned an event in a hall with a traditional Khmer buffet and a live band with his mother on stage. He quickly realized that the dream should not exist.
“It was out of my scope and out of my budget,” he said.
Thinking back to the important connection between food and stories, he came up with the idea for a cookbook featuring recipes from members of the local Khmer community. He imagined interviews with the cooks so he could document the stories behind their personal connection to their favorite dish.
He wanted it to be called “Tarsu Cookbook” because he felt that word really summed up who they are as people.
“Tarsu means perseverance, togetherness, community and love.”
Although Seng believed he could carry out this ambitious project, he admits that he had some reservations about the reception reserved for his idea by the community. He said that once he started explaining his vision, however, they opened up in the most unexpected way.
“Everyone I spoke to was so excited to share,” he said. “They wanted to pass the recipes on to my generation. They wanted to teach, spread culture, spread love.
Over the course of several months, Seng interviewed 10 people for the “Tarsu Cookbook” and collected 21 recipes ranging from generational dishes like Nom Pachok and Amok to more modern ones inspired by “YouTube mothers”. He videotaped the interviews and the meal preparation process. He also produced professional portraits of cooks. Her mother helped provide translations for the project.
The “Tarsu Cookbook” was launched during the Khmer New Year Festival, which was held at the Buddhist Temple (Wat Samakyserirattanaram) in Grove City from April 15-17. Its first run of 50 copies quickly sold out.
Seng said he was overwhelmed by the community’s response to the cookbook, which he called taking part in one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“The support for my project was more than I could have imagined,” he said. “The event was packed with people excited to celebrate, and I felt my whole community lift me up in ways I had never experienced before.
“This project was a love letter to my people, and what I received in return was the same love multiplied by a thousand. There are not enough words to describe the joy I feel.