The Soul in Food Storytelling : Q&A with Pei-Ru Ko

At age 14, Taipei native Pei-Ru Ko ( 柯沛如 ) moved to the east coast of the United States alone in order to get a well-rounded education. Following several of the twists and turns that life threw her way, she settled in the San Francisco Bay area where she founded Real Food Real Stories, a community initiative of authentic storytelling by different agents contributing to a better and healthier food system.

What is the meeting point between storytelling and food?
After graduation in the United States, my original plan was to return to Taipei and use storytelling as a form of oral history. Those plans were interrupted when I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. After making little to no progress over the course of numerous visits to doctors, a special meal after yoga class led me to a realization: the right food could ease my condition considerably. I finally realized the connection between the food we eat and our health. In addition to taking up cooking my own meals for therapeutic reasons, my newfound dietary habits brought me to San Francisco, the birthplace of the natural food movement in the United States. Another unusual benefit of my disease was that it placed me in situations where I was often alone. Soon, I started to think about how people in the city rarely listened to one another and would feel lonely even when in groups. At the same time, I thought about the people in the food industry who had contributed to the recovery of my health. Hence, I began to think about creating a family-like atmosphere to help tell the stories of the sustainable food movement. People can come and join a gathering that is tailored to the unique locations with wholesome food and authentic stories from changemakers in food.

All children love hearing stories. What makes storytelling so enchanting?
It starts from curiosity. When we learn, we begin with our surroundings. Through photographic images and words we record the daily life of the people around us. As we examine those people over the course of a few years, they switch from being strangers to people whom we trust. A story that comes from the heart is pure and powerful. Our experiences may be ordinary, but the stories they tell give off a distinct beauty and radiance.

Caption: As the storytelling facilitator, Pei-Ru Ko (right) introduces her guest Christopher Wang (left), who is a fisherman, chef and artist, to the audience. Wang then shares his adventurous journey of chasing and preserving wild salmon. (Photo Credit: Blair Randall)

Can you explain why you chose to study culinary arts at Bauman College?
Nutritional education is an important part of culinary studies at Bauman College [1].Another reason why I chose Bauman was the diverse nature of its classes. First, I could gain an understanding of “real” food, including the minerals and vitamins contained in locally sourced, fresh, seasonal and non-processed ingredients, as well as in herbs and spices. Second, I could become better friends with my body. With no single one-size-fits-all dietary plan that can serve as a shortcut to health, you need to devise a personalized plan. Third, I could learn the different nutritional needs of people in various life stages, such as women who are pregnant, adolescents and seniors. Fourth, I could learn about and borrow health concepts from different culinary cultures.

Do you have any exciting stories you can share about Real Food Real Stories?
At our first gathering, Martin Reed, the founder of Blue Sea Labs[2] explained what inspired him to join the sustainable food movement: “When I was young, my mother insisted that we only eat organic food. However, when I was around age 10, my mother passed away, and after that my father began to mostly eat out, including a lot of fast food, until one day he collapsed due to cardiovascular disease. At that moment, I realized the importance of autonomy in health. As I started to learn about food and cooking, I discovered that good foods are the product of hard work and capital. Since these ingredients were more costly, I decided to gather neighbors and friends together to buy as a group directly from the producers.” After hearing Reed’s story, those who were present asked for two more follow-up gatherings!

What is the most unforgettable food in Taipei?
My mom is from the north and my dad is from Chaozhou, Pingtung ( 屏東潮州 ).While people from the north are known to love noodles, in my family my father and I are the true noodle lovers. When eating Taiwanese cold noodles together as a family in the summer, we would compare sauce recipes. The table would be covered in toppings, such as edamame and shredded egg, cucumber and chicken. It was wonderful!

Caption: Every meal is an encounter between food and life. Real Food Real Stories is celebrating its first anniversary with peaches from an adopted peach tree. Bathed in sunlight, the peaches turned a bold red. The face of the hand-picked peach records the hard labour of farmers, the rain and the insects that crossed its path, as well as the blessings and the wisdom passed down by ancestors who nurtured this land. (Photo Credit: Michelle Edmunds)

Caption: Pei-Ru Ko hopes that the thought, values and experiences that are part of Real Food Real Stories can become an educational model that expands from San Francisco to Taipei and the world. (Photo Credit: Pete Koff)

Caption: “I like the way American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow illustrated compassion: ‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’” said Pei-Ru Ko. (Photo Credit: Jenny Cheng)

●Our Monthly Column: A Spoonful of World Flavor  ●This post originated on TAIPEI

[1] BaumanCollege: A culinary arts school located in the U.S. state of California. The eating for health concept is incorporated into all of its classes.

[2] BlueSea Labs: An e-commerce platform that directly connects consumers to fishermen. Consumers are able to buy sustainable seafood and contribute to ecological conservation and fishermen’s rights.