‘Food is our love language’: exploring south-east Asian roots with meal kits | US small business

For Christy Innouvong-Thornton and Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, food is not only a love language but also a storytelling tool to explore their roots.

as daughters of south-east Asian immigrants and refugees, they’ve long been aware of racist stereotypes surrounding the staples they grew up eating, such as nom banh chok, or fermented rice noodles; sambal and durian. When the pandemic hit, which was accompanied by a surge in hate incidents against Asian Americans, they wanted to find a way to dispel those myths while giving back to south-east Asian communities.

In September 2020, the pair founded Tuk Tuk Box, a monthly subscription service that delivers curated packages of beloved south-east Asian snacks and meal kits. The offered specialty products, including ube-flavored wafer bites, canned mango nectar and instant noodles with tom yum and red bean curd bases, are rare finds in even mainstream Asian supermarkets.

By highlighting the diversity of traditional south-east Asian flavors, Innouvong-Thornton, 37, and Aurelio-Saguin, 28, say they’re also raising awareness about the colonial history of their home countries.

“A lot of our dishes were made out of war, distress or poverty,” said Innouvong-Thornton, a Laotian American chef. “We had to ferment things and turn an item like rice into paste, noodles and crackers. It shows the resilience of our community but also a forced resilience.”

The name of their business, too, is a nod to its mission-driven ethos.

“Tuk Tuk are the rickshaws in south-east Asia,” said Aurelio-Saguin, a public health consultant of Filipino and Indonesian descent. “My dad said it would be a good name for our company because it’s also our vehicle to make social change.”

What led you to launch Tuk Tuk Box?

Christy Innouvong-Thornton: I worked in Thailand with asylum seeking families, teaching them English through this social enterprise called Courageous Kitchen. When I moved back to the US, I was still teaching cooking classes up until the pandemic. Beatriz and I wanted to find a way to raise awareness about refugee issues in Thailand and send money back to those families. We started sending meal kit boxes to friends during lockdown. Beatriz suggested we make a subscription box model because it’s more sustainable and we could also tell stories of the families in a more interactive and meaningful way.

‘It’s our way of reclaiming the narrative of when we were kids and people said our lunch smelled funny.’ Photograph: Unison Creative

Why focus on food as a vehicle to share stories about a group of people?

Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin: Food is our love language. In the Asian community, sometimes our parents don’t like to express their emotions. But they’d give you a big bowl of rice and your favorite dish when you’re sad, and you know you’re loved. For us, food is also an ever-changing storytelling vehicle. In Filipino food, you can see the influence of the Spanish with the pork, or the Americans with spam. We can pass down generational stories just by sharing a meal at the table.

What are some widespread misconceptions about south east Asian dishes?

Aurelio-Saguin: One is that our food is very funky, so think of fish sauce and fermented shrimp. We decided with our first snack, we have three levels: one that has introductory flavors like cheese and crackers, another for those already familiar with south-east Asian flavors and a third that has durian and shrimp paste. It’s our way of reclaiming the narrative of when we were kids and people said our lunch smelled funny.

How do you go about curating and finding suppliers for specialty products that aren’t found in many supermarkets?

Innouvong-Thornton: We went to different Asian stores all around California: Thai town in LA, Cambodian communities in Orange county. We cold-called and emailed people, asking if we could order from them. After two years, we have a good relationship with regular wholesalers we work with. Before the pandemic got bad, we also had a lot of snacks directly imported from Thailand and the Philippines.

The specialty products include ube-flavored wafer bites, canned mango nectar and instant noodles with tom yum and red bean curd bases.
The specialty products include ube-flavored wafer bites, canned mango nectar and instant noodles with tom yum and red bean curd bases. Photograph: Unison Creative

You’re both children of south-east Asian immigrants and refugees. How did your own family history and upbringing inspire this effort?

Aurelio-Saguin: When I bring Tuk Tuk Box products home to my dad, sometimes he starts crying because they remind me of his mom and his older brother when they made food. Most of my dad’s siblings were born in Jakarta, and my dad was born in the Philippines. There was a language barrier because he spoke Tagalog and they spoke Indonesian, and he only knew a few staple Indonesian dishes. But because of Tuk Tuk Box and the deep dive we’ve been doing, learning and decolonizing our history, he’s been able to learn more about his own background.

Innouvong-Thornton: For me there was always a lot of shame growing up Asian. My parents escaped Laos as refugees, and I didn’t know a lot about my culture. Starting this organization was a way for me to heal and create a relationship with my biological mom. A lot of people have told us they resonated with us as first, second or third-gen kids who are stuck between two worlds: we’re Asian at home but maybe don’t even speak our language. We’re trying to show everyone we’re not monolithic. There isn’t one way to be “Filipino enough”, or “Lao enough”, or “Thai enough”.

Why do you donate a portion of your proceeds to grassroots organizations that support the south east Asian community?

Aurelio-Saguin: South-east Asian women are one of the lowest-paid in the US. We have one of the lowest educational attainment rates. Since I’ve worked in policy, I always found that our communities are left out of the conversation. Budgets are already smaller for Asian Americans, and when you break that down, south-east Asians don’t get much. We want to create economic development opportunities and, with these donations, we can still make sure some of the money is re-rotating back to the community.

What’s next for Tuk Tuk Box?

Innouvong-Thornton: In the next year, we hope to be able to pay ourselves a salary. We’ve never paid ourselves from day one. This is something we’ve used our own savings for and a few community loans.

Aurelio-Saguin: We have a cookbook coming up. On our website, we have different stories and recipes from folks in our community that we collected over the last two years. It’d be a good opportunity for us to put these in a book, and it can be a way for our stories and our joy to be printed and sold in the mainstream. When you walk into Barnes & Noble or Target, how many times do you see an Asian book written by an Asian person?