Sweet and Sour Soup Is the Sustenance of Life

Graphic design major Thanh Nguyen ’21 honored the women in her family by creating a Vietnamese cookbook for her senior art exhibition, which won the Raspberry Monday Award for artistic excellence and influence within the Department of Art and Design.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

July 07, 2021 | 2:30 p.m.

Thanh Nguyen '21 created a cookbook to celebrate and honor the women in her family for her senior art and design project.

Thanh Nguyen '21 created a cookbook to celebrate and honor the women in her family for her senior art and design project.

Over the last 15 years, the Nguyen family kitchen has been a space for collaboration, for blending cultures and sharing stories, and for artistic innovation—and a hot June day in Minnesota encapsulated it all. Fresh vegetables covered the countertops, red and green and ready to be sliced, and before Thanh Nguyen ’21 began her task, she raised the knife and asked her mom a question in Vietnamese. Her mom demonstrated how to chop the spongy stem of bạc hà, and the shiny black countertop reflected their faces as they worked around each other, collecting and cutting ingredients for canh chua cá, a soup that offers sweet, sour, and savory substance fit for hungry bellies.

Canh chua cá is one of the many meals Nguyen included in the recipe book she created for her senior exhibition as a graphic design major. She titled the book Moi—which means “asking for the participation of someone” in English—with the intention of inviting her audience to the table to partake in these meals rich with flavor and family history. Nguyen grouped recipes dear to her mother, aunts, and cousin and used her typography talents to display the recipes in both Vietnamese and English, interspersing the pages with photographs of these women cooking together in the Nguyen family kitchen. “The use of photography captures the intimate moments shared between myself and my family members,” Nguyen says in her artist statement. “It documented the careful steps from prepping to displaying the food on the table and to redraw memories from Vietnam in a single frame.” 

Born in Lagi Binh Thuan, Vietnam, Nguyen remembers her mother waking at 5 a.m. to sell vegetables in their local market, which she had been doing since junior high to take care of her younger siblings. She would use the money she made to buy and prepare food for her family. Nguyen’s uncle paved the way for her family to immigrate to the United States, and Nguyen remembers her first escalator ride, her long flight across the Pacific when she was six years old. Nguyen’s parents bought a house in Burnsville, Minnesota, which her father loves to renovate in his free time, usually taking on one house project every summer. Nguyen’s younger sister Tina is about to start middle school and crushed her fifth-grade reading challenge. Their mother started working in the United States at a food packing company, and for the last decade or so, she has excelled as a nail technician. 


Nguyen admires her mother’s resilient nature and work ethic, and every day she tries to follow her inspiring example. Nguyen has pursued her dreams at Bethel, finding a home in the smaller, Christian community, especially in the art and design program. She loved collaborating with the professors, both in terms of honing her craft and also learning how to pitch ideas and use different software programs. “One of the best experiences for me was just to get to know the art department faculty,” Nguyen says. “All of them have such a great personality, so quirky, but professional at the same time. You're really there just to learn from them, and also share your experiences with them, because they're ready just to listen to you and support you on the journey.” 

Her graphic design major helped her blend studio art with the digital medium to give her work a textured approach. Nguyen’s Moi received the Raspberry Monday Award, which honors outstanding qualities of an upper-class art or design major for excellence in the studio and contribution to the Department of Art and Design. And, when she walked across the stage in Benson Great Hall last May, she furthered her family’s story as the first person to graduate not only from high school but college as well. She’s currently interning as a graphic designer at the Pioneer Press and joins her family for dinner every night.

As Nguyen and her mother prepare canh chua cá, creativity sparks between them, inspiring how they fashion their vegetables and dish their soup so each portion has the appropriate ratio of noodles to broth, vegetables to fish, and a wide array of colors. They laugh together as they flip through cupboards and taste test the sweet and sour broth, and even when they’re not looking at each other, mutual admiration is evident in their smiles. “I think she is more sweet than sour,” Nguyen says when her mother’s out of the room. “She's very, very sweet. She treats people with kindness, all the time. She reminds me to be kind, and care for others a lot. And she's very level headed, so sweet all the time.”

Canh chua cá
From Moi by Thanh Nguyen

Ingredients:  For Seasoning:
2lbs     Catfish
1/2lbs  Okra
1lb       Tomato
1          Taro stem
1lb       Bean sprout
1/4lb   Pineapple
2          Red pepper, thin slices
1          Bunch of green onion
1          Bunch of cilantro
2tbsp   Sugar
5tbsp   Fish sauce
1tbsp   Salt
2tbsp   Chicken bouillon powder
1/2      Pouch of tamarind
  1. Prepare by descaling and cutting the catfish and wash it with salt and vinegar. Run over with cold water to rinse clean.
  2. Cut the tomatoes into wedges and pineapple and tar stem into 3–4-inch lengths. For the okra, cut off the top and rinse the stem with water. Rinse all the vegetables. Finally, cut up the green onion into 1-2 cm sections.
  3. Pour water into a big pot and let it steam over high heat. Put in seasonings.
  4. Once the water has boiled, put in the catfish and let boil. Then, slowly add in all the vegetables including the red pepper.
  5. Skim off the froth. Again, let it fully boil before taking it off the heat. Top off with green onion and cilantro, and season again as needed.

For more Vietnamese recipes, family stories, and breathtaking photography, Moi by Thanh Nguyen is available to purchase in hardcover.


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