The Cultural Defense: Frugality Is Healthy and Wise

New America Media, News Report, Andrew Lam Posted: Mar 06, 2009

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,” says 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 rattles 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 an immigrant 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.”

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User Comments

Andrew Lam on Mar 08, 2009 at 01:44:57 said:

Andrea Nguyen wrote a blog in her vietworldkitch(dot)com website on having to survive on $6.50 a day and eating well: read on:

How Would You Eat for $6.50 a Day?
Last Wednesday, I was in Los Angeles on business and one of the things I found myself doing was watching a group of very recent Asian and Latino immigrants clamor for cheap produce at a discount market. Prices were incredibly good --

Asian pears - 2 pounds/$1
Yellow onions - 4 pounds/$1
Green bell peppers - 4 pounds/$1
I immersed myself in the scene, trying to stand still to observe people as grocery carts were being pushed up against my butt. These were people fighting for the best selection and cheapest produce. They clearly knew what to look for, quickly examining every specimen before putting it into their plastic produce bags. The thought that went through my mind was, \"Man, these people sure know how to shop and eat well.\"

When I got back to my hotel, there was a message from journalist Andrew Lam asking me to comment on how immigrant food traditions are perfect for weathering our current economic crisis. The stock market may be bearish on mortgage-backed securities, but I\'m bullish on home cooking. A good home cooked meal is always a safe bet, in good and bad times. And these days when people are cooking fewer real meals at home (getting takeout and eating it at the dining table is not really \'eating-in\'), the value of home cooking is even stronger.

Take a read of Andrew\'s piece, The Cultural Defense: Frugality is Healthy and Wise (New American Media). One of the things I mentioned in the piece was a CNN segment where a reporter tries to eat on less than $6.50 a day. That\'s the amount of money allowed on food stamps. The reporter was buying a bunch of processed foods -- canned soup, for instance, and admitted that he has lost weight by the end of the experiment. It was more a case of not having home cooking survival strategies.

I thought that I could get by on that amount of money with some rice, fish sauce, fresh vegetables, tofu, inexpensive cuts of meat (e.g., ground pork) and small fish (e.g., smelts, sardines). For example, a pot of rice could be enjoyed the first day with other dishes, made into fried rice the second day with leftovers, and simmered into creamy chao soup for a third meal. A batch of marinara sauce could be served on spaghetti one day, used for pizza the next and transformed into soup on the third day.

I\'d scan weekly grocery store ads, look at overripe, nearly spent discount produce at the supermarket. In other words, I\'d revert back to the way my family and I ate when we first got here. Call it scrappy immigrant cooking. Actually, I carried on that practice in college too. I\'d get by quite deliciously and nutritiously.

And, given that food stamps are suppose to be supplemental, let\'s say you had $10 total a day. I could include liquor in that budget!

-- edited by the publisher.

Betsey on Mar 07, 2009 at 12:48:56 said:

I have been eating beans and tomatoes every day for lunch going on 10 years! Healthy, happy, and um thin.

KM on Mar 06, 2009 at 14:46:51 said:

my boyfriend feeds me excellent filipino food on less than $20 a week.So I don't feel obligated to bring my lunch - despite a 10% pay cut for state employees... But, everyone in our office who's in the know knows that viet Banh mi sandwiches are still the best and cheapest sandwich in town. :-)




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