Eat To Live (Excerpt: “The Nourishing Asian Kitchen”)

In this excerpt from "The Nourishing Asian Kitchen," author Sophia Nguyen Eng shares how an encounter with "lunatic farming" inspired a family's health journey.

by Hobby Farms HQ
PHOTO: courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

The following is an excerpt from Sophia Nguyen Eng’s new book The Nourishing Asian Kitchen(Chelsea Green Publishing December 2023) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

Nourishing Asian Kitchen
courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

“Eat to live, do not live to eat!” was a lesson my grandfather taught me when I was a little girl following him around his backyard garden in San Jose, California. He was a man who didn’t speak much and always had a serious demeanor, so I soaked in those moments when he did speak. And although I didn’t know it at the time, his few simple words were setting a positive trajectory for our family’s health for generations to come. 

I am a first-generation Vietnamese American. My parents fled Vietnam by boat with my older sister, who was then 2 years old, the night before the fall of Saigon in 1975. My maternal grandparents followed four years later. Both generations—my parents and grandparents—settled in San Jose, first living together in the same house and later in the same neighborhood, a block apart. 

Life wasn’t easy for our immigrant family adjusting to a totally different life in California, but my parents always ensured that our family’s basic needs were met. Our home was always filled with the aroma of delicious and nutritious food and, although both of my parents worked long hours to make ends meet, my mother made it a priority to feed us well. Whenever she wasn’t taking overtime shifts, I could find her in the kitchen. 

My mother cooked nose-to-tail before it was a thing, using every part of an animal to cook delicious, nutrient-dense meals and leaving nothing to waste. She could stretch a whole broiler chicken into multiple meals: cooking down the head, neck, and bones for several hours to make porridge, the dark meat for cabbage and chicken salad, the breast meat for chicken phở—and even hot and spicy chicken feet and delectable chicken heart appetizers. 

Growing up in Silicon Valley, I often felt like an outsider at the school lunch table. While other kids were munching on Lunchables and Fruit Roll-Ups, my mom had packed me pork floss, a finely shredded dry pork that other kids called “animal hair.” For my fifth-grade field trip, my mother packed me bánh mì with chicken liver pâté that made my backpack smell like a wet dog. But even while I was pining for Lean Cuisine, Coke and strawberry-flavored gummy bears as an afterschool snack, I always jumped at the opportunity to go to the grocery store with my mother and help her prepare our family meals. I loved watching her pick out the freshest fruit, vegetables, fish and poultry or negotiate for a better price. Alongside my grandfather’s simple philosophy to eat to live, not live to eat, I absorbed these practical skills from my mother and carried them with me to college, my career, marriage and motherhood. 

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In school, I was highly motivated by two goals: I wanted to attend a prestigious university and then get a high-paying job so I could one day repay my parents for the hard work and sacrifices they made for our family. I also wanted to study medicine so that I could help others attain health and healing; there was, I thought (and still do), no greater aspiration. After I graduated from high school, I enrolled in an accelerated seven-year dual BA/MD program at The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC. I thought I was well on my way to achieving both goals. 

But the best-laid plans are often disrupted by reality, and mine were no exception. After I launched into my studies at GWU, I began looking more carefully at the details of the program. There was only one class in nutrition! Doctors, I learned, receive minimal training in nutrition. When they counsel patients, if at all, most offer only outdated recommendations for a standard American diet (SAD)—the same dietary recommendations that have coincided with a massive surge in diabetes, obesity and chronic disease. I realized, somewhat painfully, that I’d received a better education in health and healing from my upbringing than I ever would in medical school. And so I decided to change course. 

I completed my undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in clinical psychology, then moved back to the Bay Area to start a career in the tech industry. I led growth marketing campaigns at startup companies with few resources to achieve growth by as much as a factor of 10. Once again, I realized how valuable my upbringing had been: I applied my mother’s humble art of stretching a budget for some of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world. 

Around this time, I crossed paths with Tim, a young man I’d attended high school with in San Jose who had just graduated from West Point and was beginning a career in the Army. We were both ambitious and organized, and shared similar values and visions for our lives. But we also had big differences, specifically around food. While I grew up on nose-to-tail cooking, Tim grew up on Rice-a-Roni. During the early years of our marriage, most of our disagreements were related to comfort food—specifically Tim’s nightly habit of munching on Nacho Cheese Doritos and Coke with two heaping scoops of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on the side. 

Despite the unhealthy habits from his upbringing, Tim understood the importance of nutrition. He’d struggled with eczema for his entire life, ever since childhood. It was common for him to have white scratch marks all over his body from itching. Early in our marriage, sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking we were being hit with one of Californian’s famous earthquakes, only to discover that it was Tim scratching in his sleep and shaking the bed! We intuitively knew there was a dietary or lifestyle component to his condition, so we began experimenting with eliminating various foods and changing certain household products. Lo and behold, when we switched from grain-fed supermarket beef to grass-fed beef, he immediately experienced relief from eczema. This was enough for Tim to get on board with a lifestyle change—which is not to say it was easy. Even as a West Point grad and Army veteran, Tim says that his most challenging battles were not fought in the deserts of Baghdad, but at home, around food, nutrition and the struggle to change the eating habits he grew up with. 

In 2010, “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin gave a talk at Google Headquarters in the Bay Area. Joel owns Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and became famous when Michael Pollan devoted a chapter to him in his 2006 bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan described how Joel integrated animals into his farming system in ways that have resulted in healthier food, happier animals, less waste, and an efficient, closed-loop farming ecosystem. Salatin calls himself a lunatic farmer because the evangelical Christian frequently finds himself at odds with regulatory recommendations and requirements, as well as modern agricultural practice. As Joel says, everything he wants to do is illegal—and yet his many loyal customers routinely travel great distances and pay a premium for his delicious, nutritious and ethically produced food. Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm, and Michael Pollan shined a bright light on how broken the industrial agriculture system is, as well as the failures of regulatory bodies such as the USDA, FDA and state health agencies. 

At Google, Joel reminded us that, until relatively recently, there were no garbage trucks to cart waste away or landfills to dump trash in someone else’s backyard. Chickens were the garbage disposal salvage operation on the homestead! When food spoils, you feed it to the chickens and they give you eggs in return. What a gorgeously efficient circular system! Too many Americans “go green” by throwing their banana peels on a diesel-powered dump truck that travels to an off-site composting operation. Joel told those of us in the audience that if we really wanted to be “green,” we should attach a chicken house to our corporate cafés so that the scraps go right out to the chicken house, the eggs come right back in, and we don’t have to truck our garbage away or buy eggs from somewhere else. 

Everything Joel Salatin said in that talk resonated with me—the systems-thinking efficiency, the commonsense frugality, and his respect for the land and the animals. It reminded me of the simple frugality of my mother and the common sense of my grandfather. Good food, good agriculture and good health are inseparable, and traditional wisdom is often a much greater value than so-called modern improvements. 

Since both Tim and I lacked farming experience, we enrolled in several workshops and conferences organized at Polyface Farm. We learned how to process meat chickens and rabbits and learned how to improve land for pasture. Our aim was to gain practical, hands-on experience and learn from the experts. And who better to learn from than Joel himself, the renowned farmer and practitioner of sustainable agriculture? 

These hands-on workshops gave us the confidence to move out of Pleasant Hill, California, and purchase 6 acres in Lincoln, north of Sacramento, along with our own chicken processing equipment and tractor. This homestead included chickens, goats and sheep, which was a far cry from our urban backgrounds growing up in San Jose. In 2022, we moved our family and homestead to eastern Tennessee, where we built upon our successes and lessons learned in California. We even expanded our livestock and skill sets by adding dairy cows to the mix! 

Joel’s philosophy around food, farming and nutrition quickly led me to the work of another renegade thinker: Sally Fallon Morell, author of Nourishing Traditions, founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and founder of A Campaign for Real Milk. Sally is passionate about health and has made it her mission in life to advocate for a diet based on nutrient-dense foods and raw milk. Nourishing Traditions, based on the work of Weston A. Price, confirmed the teachings of my mother and grandfather about eating traditional foods. 

Dr. Weston A. Price was a Canadian dentist who lived and practiced in Cleveland, Ohio, during the early part of the twentieth century. In his dental practice, Dr. Price noticed that the dental health of his patients, and children in particular, had been declining over time, and he suspected that it had something to do with the increasing availability of processed foods in the American diet. 

Weston A. Price was a man on a mission. Driven to understand the surge in tooth decay, palate malformations, and other deteriorations in dental health, he embarked on a series of remarkable journeys to isolated regions around the world. From the villages of Switzerland to the Outer Hebrides, Africa, Australia and Polynesia, he sought out communities where people still relied on their native diets of traditionally grown, raised and prepared foods. These diets were a far cry from the processed industrial foods that were becoming increasingly popular in North America in the early 20th century. Instead, they were rich in animal foods such as organ meats, shellfish, eggs and butter, and packed with vital nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; water-soluble vitamins like B complex and C; and a host of essential minerals. 

With meticulous attention to detail, Price documented the foods people ate, how they were produced on the farm, and how they were prepared in the kitchen. And what he found was astonishing. In communities where people continued to rely on traditional foods, dental health was strong and overall health was robust. But in communities that had been introduced to processed industrial foods such as white flour, vegetable oils and white sugar, the health of the people had deteriorated rapidly. 

Price’s research revealed a remarkable correlation between a diet rich in traditional nourishing foods, including high-quality meat, milk, grains, fruits and vegetables, and optimal dental and overall physical health. This groundbreaking work inspired Sally Fallon Morell to co-found the Weston A. Price Foundation in 1999 with the goal of restoring “nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” Fallon’s acclaimed cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, has sold millions of copies and presented a bold critique of the food pyramid, mainstream nutrition guidelines, the standard American diet, the low-fat fad and the increasing reliance on processed foods. In line with Dr. Price’s research, both Morrell and Salatin advocate for humanely raised animals as an essential component of agriculture and human nutrition, emphasizing the importance of locally sourced meats, milks, cheeses and fats from grass-fed/grass-finished and pasture-raised animals. 

As an Asian American family striving to prioritize nourishing traditional foods, Tim and I encountered a challenge: the research of Dr. Price, upon which we based our approach, did not include studies on Asian countries. China and Japan in the 1930s, in particular, did not fit his criteria of isolated, nonindustrialized groups with diets based on indigenous foods and limited imports. Despite being considered “traditional” at the time, both nations had extensive histories of trade with other countries and already had established industries, including food production. This posed a dilemma for us as we sought to honor our cultural traditions while embracing a nourishing diet. 

Take one example from our own family: Vietnam’s rich culinary culture has been shaped by a variety of influences, including French colonialism in Indochina. The introduction of French flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques transformed traditional Vietnamese dishes, creating a new and distinct flavor profile. The French introduced the baguette to Vietnam, which the Vietnamese adapted using rice flour to create bánh mì. (In fact, I am part French, which explains why I love Vietnamese and French food so much.) Many common vegetables, such as potatoes, artichokes, carrots, asparagus and onions were also introduced to Vietnamese cooking from the West. French influence extends beyond ingredients to cooking methods, with the use of butter, cheese, and wine all reflecting French culinary traditions. Even beef dishes like bò 7 món, a seven-course meal of beef, were created by French expats to celebrate the new availability of imported beef during the French colonial era. Vietnamese cuisine remains uniquely flavorful and diverse, a testament to the country’s rich culinary history beyond French influences. 

All of this meant that identifying the most nourishing traditions for our family was … complicated! Our family’s cooking traditions included a lot of Vietnamese foods, of course, as well as a blend of Chinese and Taiwanese cooking from Tim’s background. But over the years, our family’s palate was shaped by where we lived in California and being exposed to some of the best Asian cuisine in the world, from Korean BBQ and Indian curry dishes to Thai noodles and fresh Japanese sashimi and more. 

On top of all that, Tim and I had three (very different) generations under one roof. As my parents reached retirement age and began to have health issues, my mother and father left their home in San Jose and moved in with us. In 2011, we welcomed our first-born daughter, Emily, followed four years later by our daughter Natalie. Over the years, a lot of processed foodstuffs—especially condiments, marinades and spices—had made their way into our pantry. We were a busy young family surrounded by four Whole Foods Markets and we loved our delivery of their Sperlonga bread. 

One day, I decided to purge our pantry of these highly processed foods so we could start fresh with real, wholesome foods. My mother walked into the kitchen right as I opened the refrigerator and tossed a bunch of condiments and marinades into a big black garbage bag. 

“If you throw away all of these condiments, what will we cook with?!” she exclaimed. 

“I don’t know yet, but we will figure it out!” 

I knew that adopting Salatin’s approach to agriculture and Fallon’s approach to nutrition would serve our family well, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to do it in the context of a modern first- and second-generation immigrant family. I was beginning to suspect that we were going to have to make it up as we went along. 

When I explained to my mother why I was throwing out our processed soy sauce and hoisin sauce, however, she quickly got on board with the same kind of determination I’d witnessed when she bargained with the fishmonger for a better price on mackerel. Focusing on a few key staples was the first step in a years-long journey we took together to recreate the Asian dishes our family loved so they would be more nourishing and nutrient-dense. 

As we saw with Tim’s eczema, the proof of better health was all the evidence we needed to dedicate ourselves to this way of life. Over time, ailments that my parents suffered from improved. For my mother, that meant her hypertension diminished and congestive heart failure resolved. My father struggled with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), both of which also improved after we began eating real food as close to its natural state as possible. 

I now believe that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to food, health and nutrition. It’s probably true that every family must grapple at some level with honoring their culinary traditions while rebuilding them for better nutrition, especially in the context of a convenience-driven modern society. I don’t claim to have all the answers. This book is simply my offering of our family’s beloved Asian recipes through the lens of nutrient-dense Wise Traditions principles. The Wise Tradition principles are not a diet, per se, but more a framework for making the best food choices for the human body, based on what has worked for humankind for millennia. 

In other words, it is my attempt to fill a gap where Weston A. Price left off, as well as a passion project to spend as much time as I can in the kitchen with my mother in order to capture her recipes and preserve them for her grandchildren. This book and the homemade recipes in it were inspired by her and, while I enhanced them with everything I’ve learned from Joel Salatin, Sally Fallon Morell, and the Weston A. Price community, they all required her thumbs-up when she tasted each dish. And Mom did not go easy on me, I assure you! From our kitchen to yours, I hope you and your family enjoy these recipes as much as we do.

Sophia Nguyen Eng is a first-generation Vietnamese-American who left a successful career in growth marketing in Silicon Valley to start a five-acre permaculture farm in the Appalachian region of eastern Tennessee. During her time in the tech industry, Eng led successful growth marketing campaigns for startups and Fortune 500 companies like WorkDay, InVision, and Smartsheet, which led to opportunities to develop a certificate training program with CXL Institute and being a founder of the tech organization Women in Growth. A sought-after speaker, she has presented at Google HQ, GrowthHackers, and the global SaaStalk tech conferences. Now she draws on her experiences speaking on stage and her knowledge of food, farming, and health to present at homesteading conferences. Eng is also a Weston A. Price Chapter Leader and the founder of the website Sprinkle with Soil. With her husband, Tim, she raises grass-fed dairy cows, beef cattle, laying hens, broilers, ducks, sheep, goats, turkeys, and grows a variety of produce for her multi-generational family and local community.

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