By Dedra Cordle
Food and stories are intrinsically linked in the mind of Ratha Seng. Some of his earliest memories and most cherished moments were created through an extensive meal preparation process for the large gatherings his family would regularly host.
It would be hours before the celebration was slated 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 the backyard frying “obscene amounts of chicken wings,” the women could be found in a central location where they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder peeling, slicing and dicing all of the ingredients needed to make the traditional Cambodian fare. On occasion, they would engage in a friendly game of body jostling to determine who got to use the mortar and pestle.
“Food preparation could get very competitive,” said Seng, 21.
It was during this lengthy, and sometimes monotonous, meal preparation process when the stories would start to flow. Some of the guests would share the happenings in their lives, and others would share the latest news in the lives of those who were not yet present.
While much of the discourse was overwhelmingly light-hearted and positive, occasionally the mood would shift and they would talk about more melancholy times.
One of his mother’s favorite dishes to make for these gatherings was Nom Pachok, rice noodles served with fish and hen and a whole host of vegetables and rich spices. Every once in a while, during the preparation process, Samantha would talk about her own mother and lament the fact she was never able to learn this beloved recipe – or any traditional Khmer recipe – under her tutelage.
The discussion would then pivot to how she learned some of the meal preparation process by watching elders at a refugee camp put together a hearty dish using the only ingredients available to them.
“It’s solidarity food,” Samantha would say.
Like Seng’s mother and father, the majority of their guests had fled, or knew someone who had fled, the war in Cambodia that left millions dead from genocide, starvation, or forced labor during the mid-to-late 1970s. They all knew someone who had been killed; Samantha herself was the lone survivor in her family.
Though these heavy topics were not regularly broached at the festive gatherings, the people there always made space for someone who wanted to share these memories. That way, they could give them plenty of comfort in order to lift them back up.
When the sorrow would subside, they would carry on with their tasks so they all could fill their bellies with the food of their native land and new homeland. Then they would revel with appreciation that they were alive, that they were living, and that they still had so much to live for.
Being a witness to these complicated memories and complex moments had a profound and lasting impact on his life, said Seng.
“I grew up learning lessons about triumphs, perseverance, strength, and never giving up.”
He said he had always wanted to find a way to give back to his community – to pay homage to the elders that worked so hard to build a better life for his generation – but was at a loss as to what he could do.
A school project helped him discover the perfect way to achieve that goal.
For the last two years, Seng, a 2018 graduate of the South-Western Career Academy, has been studying advertising and graphic design at the Columbus College of Art & Design. As a 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 shares a passion for their chosen subject.
Initially, he envisioned an event in a hall with a traditional Khmer buffet and a live band with his mother performing. He quickly came to the realization that dream was not to be.
“It was outside of my scope and budget,” he said.
Thinking back to the important connection between food and stories, he ran with the idea for a cookbook featuring recipes from members of the local Khmer community. He envisioned interviews with the cooks so he could document the stories behind their personal connection to their favorite dish.
He wanted it to be titled “Tarsu Cookbook” because he felt that word truly encapsulated who they are as people.
“Tarsu means perseverance, solidarity, community, and love.”
While Seng had faith he could competently complete this ambitious project, he does admit he had some reservations in regard to the community’s reception for his idea. He said once he started explaining his vision, however, they opened up in the most unexpected ways.
“Everyone that I talked to was so excited to share,” he said. “They wanted to pass on the recipes to my generation. They wanted to teach, to spread the culture, to spread the love.”
Over the course of several months, Seng interviewed 10 people for the “Tarsu Cookbook” and collected 21 recipes that range from generational dishes like Nom Pachok and Amok to some more modern ones inspired by “YouTube mothers.” He videorecorded the interviews and the meal preparation process. He also took professional portraits of the cooks. His 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. His initial run of 50 copies quickly sold out.
Seng said he was overwhelmed by the community’s response to the cookbook, which he called his participation in 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 full of people excited to celebrate, and I felt my entire community lift me up in a way I’ve never experienced before.
“This project was a love letter to my people, and what I got back was the same love multiplied by a thousand. There aren’t enough words to describe the joy I feel.”