New America Media
Editor's note: In tough times, some Asian immigrants are returning to their traditional diet in an attempt to save money, and finding that being frugal doesn't have to mean eating unhealthy. NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams – Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”
SAN FRANCISCO – Thien Tran, who manages a beauty salon and nail spa, says he has been eating better and losing weight since the economic downturn.
“My wife makes Vietnamese food and I take it to work,” said Tran, who is in his forties. “I used to order burgers and fries or Thai noodles, but that is too expensive. My lunch went from $8 to $2 a day.”
In lean times, Thien has returned to eating his traditional Vietnamese foods. “It’s either rice and fish, rice and salted pork, rice and steamed chicken, with lots of vegetable,” he rattled off his menu, laughing.
It’s a cultural defense against an economic crisis that works for many who come from Asia and other parts of the world. After all, it’s not just Thien’s waistline that’s shrinking – his pocket book is too, as less customers are able to afford his services. “They come,” he says with a sigh, “when the roots are really showing [for a dye job]. And instead of three weeks, now it’s six weeks for nails.”
From beauty to shopping and eating out, American behaviors are changing radically. Macaroni and cheese boxes are selling swiftly, along with Spam, the canned luncheon meat invented during the Depression era. From McDonalds’ value meals to Burger King’s two bite-sized burgers for $1.39 to Starbucks’ $3.95 coffee with an egg sandwich, cup of oatmeal or coffee cake, businesses are luring customers with low-priced, high-calorie menu items.
But does frugality have to be synonymous with being unhealthy?
“The answer is no,” says New York chef Irene Khin, who runs a catering business that specializes in Asian-fusion cuisine. “You can make a nutritious meal for less than a McDonalds’ lunch combo and feed three people,” she says.
In fact, as she talks on the phone, she is eating lunch with her staff of four. “We made Chop Chae [Korean mixed vegetables with beef and noodles] enough for six. It costs around $12.”
Andrea Nguyen, a cooking teacher and the author of the cookbook “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors,” readily agrees.
“Being poor doesn't translate to eating badly,” says Nguyen, who runs a Web site on Vietnamese cooking. “I saw on CNN where a reporter went shopping for $6.42 a day as if he were on food stamps, and I thought I could eat lots of rice, vegetables, tofu and small, inexpensive fish on that amount of money.”
The reporter would do better, Nguyen notes, if he were to shop at “ethnic markets,” which she says are “great sources for fresh, reasonably priced ingredients.”
In addition to being cheap, traditional Asian foods can be very flavorful, she says. “Soy sauce, fish sauce, chiles, ginger, and lime would provide lots of flavor. Mung beans and soy products would lend protein.”
It's a matter of cooking your own food, according to Nguyen. “People can save a lot of money if they prepare more meals at home.”
The perennial complaint is that home cooking takes time. But Khin quickly dismisses that idea. “I can make steamed rice and several dishes, and store it in the fridge for a week. You can eat well and healthy for very little if you’re willing to put effort into it.”
Khin offers recipes like Curry Fish and Panthay Noodle that take less than 20 minutes to make.
“When money is tight you can still eat well,” says Andrea Nguyen. “In fact, when my family came to the U.S. from Vietnam, we made the most wonderful meals from inexpensive chicken backs that we simmered for stock and then removed the meat and skin for rice. I fondly remember the flavors of those 'lean' times -- though we were eating much richer foods then than we are today!”
Studies show that immigrants gain weight when they come to the United States, and that their eating habits change for the worse the longer they stay. But there is very little information on how many revert to their cultural habits in difficult economic times – and actually become healthier as a result -- as in the case of Thien Tran.
But it’s not just a culinary habit for immigrants. Chef Irene Khin, who came here as a refugee from Burma, says the most important message for Americans to hear is that being frugal doesn’t have to mean being unhealthy.
By “taking advantage of other cultures around you,” Khin says, “you can find good recipes and make something healthy for yourself and your family and save money. You don’t have to eat roast potato with steak all the time.”