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Snack boxes share refugee, migrant stories

  • COURTESY LOUIEMARK AMABATA
                                Christy Innouvong-Thornton, left, founder of Tuk Tuk Box; Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, co-founder and Allison Barcelon, operations manager.

    COURTESY LOUIEMARK AMABATA

    Christy Innouvong-Thornton, left, founder of Tuk Tuk Box; Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, co-founder and Allison Barcelon, operations manager.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. >> For those who have ever hankered for durian paste and want it delivered right to their doorsteps, Tuk Tuk Box is at their service — with a twist that uplifts Southeast Asian refugees and migrant stories.

Founded by Christy Innouvong and Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, Tuk Tuk Box is a monthly subscription box that delivers Southeast Asian snacks and ingredients. It’s named for the three-wheeled vehicle ubiquitous in the region.

But for Tuk Tuk Box, food is also a vehicle to raise awareness about ongoing issues in the Southeast Asian community, such as racism, colorism and war trauma. Each box comes with a postcard featuring personal stories across the Southeast Asian diaspora, from Filipino American farmers to Hmong refugees in Thailand.

“By sharing a meal, we can break down those barriers and have those uncomfortable conversations,” Innouvong said. “Now that we’ve given you our food, let’s talk about where this food came from. Let’s talk about the refugees or the war they stemmed from … Let’s talk about those things that you maybe didn’t want to talk about before you sat down at the table.”

The boxes come in three flavor profiles: A Lil Funky, the mildest snacks; Funky Fresh, a mix of sweet and spicy; and Funkylicious, featuring strong flavors like spicy squid and pandan durian wafers. There are also boxes that offer a variety of instant noodles — aptly named the Noods box — such as yentafo, a fermented pink bean curd noodle soup.

Aurelio-Saguin, who grew up in the Bay Area, said finding these snacks was extremely difficult when she was a child. She wants Tuk Tuk Box to not only make it easier for people to get their hands on this food, but also help those in the community feel as though their cultures are being seen.

“I hope that anyone who’s Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander will look at our boxes and hear our stories and say, ‘That’s like my grandma,’ or say, ‘That’s me,’ and feel that they are represented and being celebrated,” Aurelio-Saguin said. “Oftentimes … we’ve felt that our food has not been celebrated and brought to the table in the light that it should be.”

To create each box, Tuk Tuk Box reached out to Southeast Asian small grocers and farmers across California. Many of the box’s herbs, for instance, come from a Sacramento gardener who grows essentials like lemon grass, lime and chile leaves.

They’ve also partnered with Courageous Kitchen, a charity that uses Thai cooking classes and Bangkok street food tours to support marginalized youth in Thailand. That’s how they found several of the subjects for their boxes’ stories.

November’s story featured Alina, a Hmong refugee living in Bangkok who fled Vietnam with her family on foot. Alina, a former rice farmer, was traumatized and barely spoke when she first joined Courageous Kitchen, Innouvong said. But with support and training, she blossomed into a leader, teaching classes, leading food tours and even cooking with famous chefs in Thailand’s hotels.

But Alina’s case for refugee status has been rejected several times by the United Nations, Innouvong said, and Thailand doesn’t grant asylum. Without formal refugee status, the UN Refugee Agency won’t provide services like medical support or English lessons.

It’s stories like Alina’s that Tuk Tuk Box is ultimately working to uplift.

“People are left in the shadows and left to fend for themselves,” Innouvong said. “(Alina’s) dad and two brothers have been detained in an immigration detention center, so she’s working to support her family of eight … She’s doing well, despite the circumstances, but we never know if her family will be resettled.”

There are other stories the group wants to amplify, such as the impact of war on Southeast Asian cuisine.

Fermenting food, for example, became popularized after many families were forced to flee their homes or go into hiding during wartime. Fermenting and drying meat thus became a way to store food without the stability of home stoves or insulation. It’s easy to take the “artistry” of that kind of food for granted, Innouvong said.

By sharing food and stories, the impact of Tuk Tuk Boxes is bigger than meals — they’re also a form of resistance, a reminder of the community’s shared history and culture and a path towards establishing solidarity, she said.

“Representing the diversity of the Southeast Asian diaspora is really important,” Innouvong said. “There are so many intersections. Why not celebrate us all?”

Snack boxes start at $38, with discounts on subscriptions of three, six or 12 months. Order at tuktukbox.com.

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