Recipes in Translation: Traditional Southeast Asian Soups for New Mothers

Postpartum recipes have been passed down orally for generations in Asia. Now a multilingual cookbook is attempting to preserve them.

In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.

Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.

Besides preserving the centuries-old food wisdom, our second goal is to share this rich knowledge with our community, especially new mothers. The challenge was getting these recipes to new mothers in low-income populations. The team partnered with Berkeley Crowdfunding, a university-sponsored platform to help turn great ideas into reality, and led the university’s highest performing crowdfunding project to date—raising nearly 250 percent of our initial goal in one month. The project funded the printing of more than 500 books that will be distributed to health clinics and libraries for free.

An exciting spin-off from the fundraising campaign was that NPR featured From Mothers to Mothers on its website and Facebook page in April. In one day the post garnered over 10,000 likes and since then has been shared over 3,800 times. The scope and scale of interest and support, in and outside of the Asian American community, have been overwhelming and unexpected. They serve as great motivators for us to continue to the second phase of the project, which is to collect a wider range of recipes and document the storytelling behind each unique recipe. We welcome your ideas, time, and connections.

From Mothers to Mothers is releasing on May 22. In the meantime, enjoy two recipes from the book below.

[Filipino] TinolaTinola is a soup popular in the Philippines.

Tinola English

Tinola Filipino

[Vietnamese] Papaya SoupPapaya soup with slow-cooked pig feet is a Vietnamese dish.Papaya Soup English

Papaya Soup Vietnamese

Khanh Hoa Nguyen is a recent UC Berkeley graduate with a B.A. in Public Health and Molecular Cellular Biology. As a first generation immigrant, she recognizes the importance of maintaining traditional values and knowledge that might be lost due to acculturation. Khanh led the Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project at UC Berkeley. Currently, she is working as a Research Assistant at Asian Health Services, Oakland. Outside of work, she serves as an alum advisor to the Asian American Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG). She also volunteers as a labor coach for expectant Vietnamese mothers, many of whom are low-income immigrants and speak little English.

Dr. Marilyn P. Wong received her MD from UC San Francisco and an MPH from Johns Hopkins where she also completed her residency in Preventive Medicine. She recently retired from clinical practice and is serving as a Commissioner in the Community Health Commission in the City of Berkeley. She did research in Hepatitis B with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg in the 1980s in Philadelphia and worked in multiple Bay Area clinics. Her current volunteer effort is in fostering community health interest among undergraduates from under-served communities. Towards this end, she founded APIHRG at UC Berkeley. Dr. Wong lives in Berkeley with her mathematician husband. Their two daughters have blessed them with four spunky grandchildren. She can be reached at

Kristine Nguyen is an alumnus of UC Berkeley and AAPIHRG (2008-2009). She serves as AAPIHRG’s Crowdfund Coordinator for the Postpartum Folklore project.  Although it’s been nearly 10 years as a student participant of AAPIHRG, she continues to be inspired by them. Not only are they contributing to academia by highlighting marginalized community issues, they are also making an impact on a personal and community level. Every time she comes from an AAPIRHG gathering, she leaves in awe and with a smile on her face, knowing that so many people of the new generation are passionate about community health.


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