"Food is an easy and accessible way to invite people to learn about a culture," said Christina Nguyen, chef/co-owner of Hai Hai and Hola Arepa in Minneapolis. "I think it's a great way to pique people's curiosity. If we enjoy new foods, then it's like, 'Oh, I want to learn more about this culture.' Or, 'Maybe now I'll visit Vietnam, or Thailand.' "
That thought is one impetus behind Minnesota Rice, an online video initiative that uses cooking as a tool in the fight against racism and violence directed at Asian Americans.
With "Love our people like you love our food" as its motto, the recorded series offers step-by-step recipe tutorials while also providing a glimpse into the lives of seven high-profile Twin Cities culinarians: Ann Kim (Young Joni, Pizzeria Lola, Sooki & Mimi, Hello Pizza), Yia Vang (Union Hmong Kitchen, Vinai), John Ng and Lina Goh (Zen Box Izakaya), Ann Ahmed (Lat14, Lemon Grass), Dustin Nguyen (Tres Leches), Jonathan Janssen (Brother Justus) and Nguyen.
The videos, set to debut every few days throughout May — which is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month — also serve as a fundraiser. All the money from ticket sales (cost is $100) goes to the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), a nonprofit social justice network. The project is sponsored by Craftmade Aprons, which outfits both professional and home cooks. The Minneapolis company created a special Minnesota Rice apron that's trimmed with traditional Hmong ribbon and will donate a portion of proceeds to CAAL.
In a recent conversation, Nguyen discussed the project's goals, the benefits of sharing stories and the joys of filming in the Linden Hills home she shares with her husband and business partner, Birk Grudem.
Q: How did Minnesota Rice come about?
A: After so much violence, discrimination and racism against the Asian American community in the last year — and especially after the Atlanta killings — a lot of us were feeling really sad and a little hopeless. I wanted to do something but I didn't know what to do. I wanted to figure out a way to really start a conversation about raising awareness on this issue. Anytime that a group — whether you're Black, or Asian, or Latino — is experiencing racism, you feel isolated, you feel like you want support and acknowledgment.
Q: Where did your brainstorming take you?
A: I thought about some of the different virtual cooking classes that I've done as fundraisers. What if we did that, with a bunch of chefs and bartenders? You shoot an instructional video, you share their stories and you talk about their hopes and fears and Asian American experiences. You pull people in with the food, and then hit them with some information. I'm a somewhat impulsive person, so I immediately texted Yia because he's famous, and he has all of these different contacts, and then we started reaching out to friends. Everyone was wholeheartedly with us. Within a couple of weeks, all of a sudden it was happening. We were all at my house, shooting videos.
Q: Why is it important to share your stories?
A: Often we get grouped as Asians, but we're not a monolith. Though we do share many common threads, we are different people, with different stories. If we want people to be able to empathize with us and understand what we're going through, then we have to let them in and share a little piece of ourselves. This is something that I'm trying to get better about doing. Yia is such an amazing storyteller. So is Ann Kim. For my experience as an Asian American, sometimes you're kind of told to not make much of a fuss, just do your work and your work will speak for you. I was never taught to be very open. It was always about staying humble, doing your own thing. I'm so impressed by people who can lay it out and tell their story.
Q: What are some of the recipes that you've featured?
A: There is so much amazing food. Ann Kim, a total powerhouse chef, she made these mung bean-kimchi pancakes that are so good. Yia did a grilled snapper with a cucumber relish and all of his beautiful garnishes. John and Lina did this Chinese clay pot rice dish. It's one of my favorite things, ever, so when I heard that they were making that I was, like, "Oh, my gosh, I'm so excited that I get to have that recipe." It's actually John's mom's recipe, that she passed down to him in a book of recipes. It's so close and personal to him, and that makes it even more special.
Q: What do you prepare?
A: It's beef grilled in betel leaf, a dish that we used to have on the menu. It's really deliciously seasoned ground beef, with lemongrass, ginger and other aromatics. You kind of just roll them up in these fragrant leaves and grill them, then eat them in a lettuce wrap with some rice noodles. It's awesome, and the scent is amazing. Since these videos were coming out during barbecue season, it felt like a good time to get out there and grill.
Q: How detailed are the videos?
A: At first we thought about keeping them short, but there's so much good information, so they end up being about 30 minutes. The cocktail ones are a little shorter. They're not super-edited down. That way, people can experience every step of the process, you really get to putz around with us in the kitchen.
Q: What was it like to have a film crew in your kitchen at home?
A: It was pretty crazy, but they were super lovely and so great to work with. There were three of them, and they had a lot of equipment. I was, like, "Wow, this is real." In our old house, we couldn't have done it. But we moved, right when the pandemic started, and this kitchen definitely lends itself to filming. Of course, we all got COVID tests, and by that time a lot of us had also been vaccinated. It felt good to be able to get together with these people. I have not been able to see them for more than a year. There's definitely some healing in the process of getting together and cooking and supporting each other during these tough times. There were so many teary moments where I was, like, "Omigod, this is so much better than I ever could have imagined."
Q: What is the Coalition for Asian American Leaders?
A: They try to be the boots on the ground to figure out what the community needs. They talk to people to see what the issues are, whether that's immigration, or education, or policy, to improve the lives of the Asian American community. They have grants and seed money that they give to different Asian American projects and causes. There are even little things, like, after the shootings in Atlanta, they put out a post that said, "Hey, Asian American women, we have care packages for you, come and get them, feel loved, come and talk with other people." Bo [Thao-Urabe] is the executive director, and she's my hero now. Her reach is so amazing, and the work she does on a day-to-day basis makes me feel like I'm not doing enough.
Q: What are the project's goals, and how will you know that you've met them?
A: We were hoping to hit $50,000 with donations. As of the other day we've exceeded that by a little bit, so now we're setting the bar even higher. Let's not stop there, let's do what we can. Intangibly, we hope to be able to raise awareness. The more people that we can reach, the better. Let's engage as many people as we can, let's have that larger dialogue.
Tickets are $100; buy them at caalmn.org/minnesota-rice.
For more information, go to haihaimpls.com/minnesota-rice.